Youth and criminal justice system should focus on resettlement as a process rather than a transactional exercise, says CEO Jacob Tas

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Speaking at the public policy exchange symposium on Overcoming Prisoner Re-Offending Rates through Prison Reform, Jacob Tas highlighted how crucial changing individual and institutional perceptions of offenders is to breaking the cycle of criminality.
Here is a summary of his speech.

“Thanks for inviting me today. As many of you will know, Nacro has a 50 year history of supporting young offenders both in custody and in the community. This year is the final year of our five year Beyond Youth Custody programme (BYC), which joins together Nacro, Salford and Bedfordshire University’s and research specialist ARCS. Funded by the Big Lottery, the five year evaluation programme has been considering what works in the resettlement of young people from custody. Today I’m here to discuss how we can learn from the evidence to get resettlement right in the youth justice system. Our work here could also translate to the debate here today on the adult population and prison reform.

“At BYC and Nacro, we say that at the centre of successful resettlement is the individual. Supporting people to move on, to stop offending, to think differently about themselves and to put their past behind them. At the centre of this change is identity. Our research with those working in custody, in the community and crucially with young people themselves all point to the importance of a shift in identity as the centre-point for effective resettlement.

“By concentrating on moving forward and redefining young people’s role and place in life we can connect up services, engage young people and place them at the centre of their own future. By focusing on resettlement as a process or a ‘shift’ rather than a transactional exercise or event at the end of a sentence, we can begin to see how the system and individuals can connect to move forward.

“Crucially, we cannot separate what happens in the community with what happens in prison. We must extend the concept of prison from a community behind closed walls to being part of the wider community. In doing these individuals can stay or become connected and start the process of living positive and prosperous lives.

“Things have moved on in youth justice over the past 15 years. We’re sending less children and young people to prison and the establishment of the youth justice board recognised that young people are not the same as adults and should be treated differently.

“The Charlie Taylor review has set high expectations for bold recommendations for small more therapeutic custodial environments where young people can be safe, address problems and maintain closer links to family. This is a positive trajectory and one which the adult prison population could benefit from. However, whilst we wait for reform, BYC is setting out the key elements of change that we believe will make the system work better for young people trapped in it.

“It is clear that getting resettlement right remains a challenge but it is one which we must address because 68% of young people reoffend within the first 12 months of leaving custody. The challenge stems from the facts that too many of these young people are looked after children with an increasing number of them being girls and young women. Too many have suffered trauma, abuse and loss, too many young people with personality disorder and mental illness end up in custody. Educational attainment before, during and after custody remains too low with many young adult prisons being places of inactivity and boredom and for some they are places of danger, seclusion and isolation. Additionally families are too often isolated from the picture and care response and too many professionals report disconnect in responses. Another crucial fact which adds to the challenge are issues of inequality within the system which mean too many black and minority ethnic young people make up the youth offending prison population. That is 43% of the youth custodial population compared to 18% of the general population, which is a larger disproportion than the US.

“While we aware of the magnitude of the challenge, Nacro and the BYC consortium believe we should not be pessimistic. We know that there is amazing work happening in custody, in the community and an emerging evidence base that points towards a system that can make a difference. At the heart of interventions that work is an acknowledgement of individual vulnerabilities and structural needs, such as housing and mental health problems. There has also been acknowledgement of personal attributes that can be harnessed to help young people change the way they think about themselves and act in society at large. With this in mind and taking a positive approach, guiding principles have been developed for effective resettlement. Notably that:

“Services should be coordinated and respond to multiple need and vulnerabilities, including housing, health support, addiction services, education and work. Note that sequencing is key – if you don’t have a home or cannot manage an addiction you will not sustain employment etc.

“We need to ensure continuity of service extends into the community, family, friends and social networks.

“We need to recognise that engagement is crucial to success. Unless a young person is engaged, interested and trusts relationships with support workers, interventions are unlikely to be successful – simple things can  help this like coordinating services, not asking the same questions over and over again and workforce support and training.

Preparation for release needs to start at the earliest point of custody, preferably from day one. The following key elements will need to be considered to support the guiding principles.

“There needs to be enhanced support to enable offenders to transition back into the community. This is crucial because this period is a window of opportunity but also a moment of significant stress, what we call a trigger point. And it’s the point at which young people are most likely to reoffend. And so when it is right to do so individuals should be released on a temporary licence to prepare for transition. Wherever suitable, families and guardians should be more involved in resettlement planning.

“There needs to be collaboration across sectors, among professionals, and with families is vital. Accepting this and potentially investing in one professional to coordinate support and care locally can make a significant difference.

“And finally, as I have spoken about, a shift in identity is the end goal. This shift doesn’t happen over night. It will need personal movement as well as structural support. Often change is a process and not an event. Policy has spent a lot of time trying to find the key trigger. This is almost impossible, but we do know that coordinated support that is focused on the end goal, with ambition in mind, will help young people get to where they can be.

“In order to achieve this end goal of a shift in identity the following crucial ingredients are needed.

“The first of these crucial ingredients is education and skills. Nacro has called for increased support and funding for young people, who for various reasons, including their involvement in the criminal justice system, are playing catch up in education after 16. There needs to be a system that is flexible enough for young people to re-engage and have the time needed to reach their full potential. A system that is ambitious for all and not skewed towards high academic achievers. If we are not ambitious for these young people how can they have the drive to move on?

“It is absolutely critical that as well as ensuring education in custody has a clear focus on quality and outcomes, young people are able to access good quality education when they leave. And, in our view what happens in custody to prepare for education and work should mirror what is available in the community. This is what generates an ambition for young people to achieve in life and this is one of the crucial aspects of creating a shift in identity.

“The second of these crucial ingredients is ensuring the availability of accommodation that is suitable and safe at risk. This month HMIP highlighted the lack of suitable accommodation for young people in the Criminal Justice System. Safe, secure and supported housing is absolutely critical to successful community reintegration and moving towards independence. Nacro’s specialist housing, like other providers, are in high demand and the availability of specialist housing is becoming increasingly problematic.

“The third of these crucial ingredients are criminal records. Nacro has a long history of supporting people with criminal records into work. And we are also well established in campaigning to change the law that balances the need for public protection with fairness and the accessibility for people to get into employment and move on. Be in no doubt that a Criminal record remains one of the biggest barriers to work in the UK. According to the Ministry of Justice, in 2014, 22% of JSA claimants in last 12 years have a criminal record. Couple that with a recovering addiction or long term mental health problem and individuals (of all ages) become further isolated from employment.

“To conclude, the future is challenging, but the work Nacro and the BYC consortium are doing highlight a positive future. We can move forward by sharing our knowledge across adult and youth justice populations and this knowledge can be used to effectuate change which connects communities, bringing about custodial interventions which change lives.”