Northern Ireland news

Successful youth justice system reform `at risk unless fundamental issues are addressed' - Auditor General

Almost half of young people admitted to Woodlands were `involved with mental health services and had a mental health diagnosis'. Picture by Mark Marlow

DESPITE falling numbers of cases, prosecution of children and young people through courts is taking longer - with delays leading to "a cycle of repeated offending" with "hugely negative impacts upon long-term life outcomes, health, wellbeing and welfare".

An Audit Office report published today states successful reform of the beleaguered youth justice system is at risk unless "fundamental issues" are addressed.

Auditors found "despite the decreasing volume of cases being processed at court, there has been no evidence of a significant improvement in timeliness and the most recent figures show generally deteriorating performance since 2014-15" (when records began).

The report says the speed with which crimes are investigated and dealt with "is a key issue for the entire justice system".

"The quicker the process, the sooner victims can see that justice has been done and the sooner that those convicted can serve their sentence, begin rehabilitation and depart the system ready to reintegrate into the community without reoffending".

The report reveals that while fewer young people are being dealt with through the traditional youth justice process, "reoffending rates have remained relatively stable year on year".

Reoffenders "do so relatively quickly after leaving the justice system, and a few go on to commit many further offences".

In 2017 the Audit Office first highlighted a lack of a specific coordinated strategy for the youth justice system (YJS) and issues over assessing performance and cost effectiveness.

While the latest report acknowledges "progress has undoubtedly been made", Auditor General Kieran Donnelly "cannot conclude that the system delivers value for money" as it has no management systems capable of assessing that.

The development of a programme of action for the YJS was hampered "first by changes in ministerial priorities following an assembly election in May 2016 and then the absence of a functioning assembly between 2017 and 2019".

A plan agreed in early 2019 "is still in the early stages" of implementation.

However, the YJS has been "attempting to evolve, as much as it can within existing legislative and operational constraints", with auditors identifying decreasing numbers of young people entering and being held in Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre on remand or as a result of a custodial sentence as "one feature of this evolution".

The last available data shows almost half of young people admitted to Woodlands were "involved with mental health services and had a mental health diagnosis" and had "major educational deficits, including moderate to severe learning difficulties, lack of engagement with mainstream education and a significant number with Special Educational Needs Assessments".

Auditors said between "these levels of need, and the relatively short duration of children's residence in Woodlands, there is only so much progress staff can make when working with young people", describing them as "trapped in a `revolving door'... between health and social care facilities and Woodlands".

The Youth Justice Agency has been increasing `early intervention' initiatives which are "dealing with a greater number of young people each year".

One of the implied benefits of `diversionary disposals' rather than criminal prosecutions is that they are "quicker", however, there is no data for auditors to assess this in Northern Ireland and the Department of Justice told them "it is not possible to carry out this analysis".

The report warns there is "no clearly defined end-state design for how the entire youth justice system will work" and there is no "clear and comprehensive understanding of the impact of the Agency's work on the lives and offending behaviour".

Organisations inability to "identify and apportion the cost" of their services and "inadequate financial data poses a risk to the planning and management of reform".

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