Lessons from Beyond Youth Custody – it’s your turn, Scotland

Guest blogger Ian MacNeill reports back to CYCJ from the Beyond Youth Custody conference.

On March 22, I had the pleasure of attending a conference in London hosted by Beyond Youth Custody (BYC) on Improving Policy and Practice in the Effective Resettlement of Young People. BYC was established using funding from The Big Lottery to challenge, advance, and promote better thinking in policy and practice for the effective resettlement of young people. BYC is a partnership body comprised of several crime reduction charities and the Universities of Salford and Bedfordshire, who were brought together as part of a five year programme to deliver and evaluate a range of resettlement services across England. Over its lifespan, BYC has produced a range of documents related to resettlement, including advice and recommendations related to engaging young people in resettlement, the emotional trauma associated with being released from custody, and the role of family support in resettlement. The full list BYC resources is available from their website.

Over the course of the day, we heard from practitioners and academics on several topics related to youth resettlement, including: girls in youth custody; young people involved in gangs; resettling looked after young people; and the challenges related to resettlement for black and minority ethnic young people. One of the most significant outcomes from the BYC programme, which was outlined on the day by Dr Tim Bateman, is BYC’s theory of change in resettlement. Whilst the use of theories of change to explain how and why a desired change is expected to happen is common in other academic disciplines, this is the first time that a theory has been advanced examining the specific context of young people leaving custody. In summary, BYC’s theory of change proposes that resettlement provision should be structured in such a way to facilitate a shift in how a young person sees themselves, from an identity that promotes offending to one that promotes positive contribution to society. This involves guiding and enabling the young person, through personal and structural support respectively, to create new roles in their life story that foster and reinforce this positive identity which promotes wellbeing and desistance. Those of you who are familiar with the literature concerning criminal desistance will likely notice that BYC’s theory of change is heavily influenced by narrative conceptions of desistance. To best support narrative shifts within young people exiting custody, BYC argues that resettlement support should be structured around five key characteristics which, handily, all begin with the letter C. Accordingly, resettlement support should be: constructive, co-created, customised, consistent, and co-ordinated. For more detail on BYC’s theory for change, please see the full report.

Given the marked decline in the number of young people in custody in the UK and across many Western criminal jurisdictions, it might seem like a strange time to be arguing for an increased policy focus on young people coming out of custody. However, while any decline in the number of young people in custody should always be viewed as a positive, it is still the case that post-prison outcomes for those young people who are currently in custody remain poor. Almost 70 percent of young prison leavers will reoffend within 12 months of release, and many of those will return to custody. Indeed, the need for improved understandings of the experiences of young people leaving custody, and what kinds of support they might require, is thrown into even sharper relief when we consider that many of the institutions in which young people are being held in England are becoming more violent and less safe, the consequences of which are yet to be determined.

What, then, do the findings from the BYC programme mean in terms of resettling (which in Scottish policy terms is referred to as throughcare) young people in Scotland? Well, in the first instance the findings provide a significant body of research to draw upon which will hopefully inform throughcare provision, practice and policy in Scotland. More broadly, I think the findings point to a need for an increased research focus on formerly incarcerated youth in Scotland. Over the course of my PhD, I have been fortunate to work alongside and interview professionals involved with supporting young people leaving custody and I can say that I have seen many examples of excellent throughcare practice. Additionally, I have also interviewed young people in custody, most of whom have been there before. Time and time again, I was struck by aspects of these young people’s stories which pointed to them making huge strides whilst in custody, with many of them gaining qualifications and responsibilities which far exceeded anything they had achieved before being sent to prison, but this progress was lost when their lives rapidly unravelled after they left prison. Whilst there has been significant investment in improving the quality and scope of activities and education for young people in custody in Scotland, this same energy has not been devoted to thinking about how we can better support the same young people when they leave prison. Many of the issues faced by young people leaving custody are the same as those in other countries, with a lack of suitable and sustainable accommodation being the most pressing. Yet, in contrast to the now wider ranging body of evidence produced by the BYC partnership, there are only small pockets of research produced in Scotland which examine the lives of young people after they leave custody. Given that there are now arguments being made that those young people who are currently in custody in Scotland represent some of the most complex and marginalised young people in Scottish society, this would seem like an appropriate moment for the Scottish criminological community to take up the BYC mantle and produce a body of evidence on youth resettlement with a distinctly Scottish focus.

About our blogger

Ian is currently in his third year of his PhD at the University of Glasgow, Social and Public Health Sciences Unit. His research examines the potential for sport and sporting organisations to support the resettlement and desistance of young prison leavers. Follow him on Twitter @IanAlexanderMac

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