The dangers of ignoring practitioner voices in youth justice

Our latest guest blog, written by Dr Stephen Case and Professor Kevin Haines, of Swansea University’s Criminology department, argues that the voices of practitioners are not being heard in the youth justice process – and discusses the implications this could have for the sector and the young people that it serves.

Youth Justice practitioners employed in Youth Offending Services across Wales and England have had their voices silenced by recent developments in youth justice policy and practice.

The consequences of silencing the voices of those people charged with turning around the lives of some of our most troubled children include: de-professionalising practice, promoting ineffective practice and pursuing a restricted, negative perspective of young people – all in a non-evidenced way.

 The context of Youth Justice

The Youth Justice System (YJS) of England and Wales is overseen by the Youth Justice Board (YJB), an ‘independent’ organisation working closely with the government to support, guide, inform and monitor the practice of staff working in multi-agency Youth Offending Services (YOSs). The central element of youth justice practice under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 is direct work with those children who come into the YJS and the key aim of this practice is to prevent offending by those children.

Since its birth in 2000, the YJB has pursued a pseudo-scientific, psychologised agenda of ‘effective’, evidence-based’, ‘what works’ practice that focuses both the blame for offending and the responsibility for the success of interventions onto children. The YJB is heavily influenced by assumptions that ‘risk factors’ predict later offending and so must be targeted early on by risk-based intervention. Consequently, youth justice practice has been driven by the Scaled Approach, which links the level (frequency, intensity, duration) of intervention given to a child to their level of risk measured by YOS staff completing the Asset risk assessment instrument during interviews with children.

We don’t practice what we preach

According to the Youth Justice Board of England and Wales, a ‘key element of the effective practice’ meant to underpin the Scaled Approach is the engagement of children in youth justice processes, but little is said about engaging YOS staff in these processes, despite their pivotal role in leading practice relationships and facilitating change in children. Instead, the central feature of ‘effective’ youth justice practice for YOS staff is their ongoing critical reflection on their practice as defined within the parameters of Asset and the Scaled Approach.

Whilst YOS staff have been consulted sporadically on pre-formed Governmental plans to develop and implement risk-based youth justice processes, there has been a lack of meaningful consultation regarding the development of Asset and the Scaled Approach and an absence of reflection taking account of the views of practitioners on its implementation. The assumption, on the part of the YJB and others, has been that the Scaled Approach works and it is simply the role of practitioners to reflect on their assiduousness and alacrity in implementing it – a process akin to policy-based evidence, rather than evidence-based policy. This assumption was destroyed by the evidence from the Scaled Approach pilot exercise, which showed that assiduous implementation of the model led to alarming increases in reoffending and that practitioners were extremely unsupportive of the methodology – prompting us to rename it the ‘Failed Approach’ and playing (some) part in the YJB’s dramatic reconsideration of their assessment and intervention framework (now called AssetPlus).

The result of a top-down approach based on assumption, post-hoc consultation and self-fulfilling evidence-producing exercises is that so-called ‘evidence-based’ practice is not based on evidence provided by a key actor involved in animating this practice (i.e. YOS staff. The same argument can be made for children of course); effective practice that is prescribed without the engagement of the practitioner and reflective practice wherein YOS staff can only reflect in a token way on a process they are unable to influence. Put simply, youth justice practice has been developed without the meaningful input of those staff ultimately responsible for its implementation – the voices of YOT staff have not been heard and their contribution to improving practice has been neglected.

A prescription without a consultation

We have argued at length elsewhere about the detrimental and self-defeating effects of excluding the voices of children from youth justice processes and practices. However, it is possible that the neglect of practitioner voices in shaping youth justice processes is an issue even more overlooked by critics and advocates of system reform. The practice of youth justice is neutered when the YOS practitioners who are given the responsibility to ensure that the YJS ‘works’ to prevent offending are given very little responsibility to inform the objectives, content, methods and tools to innovate, develop and evaluate their own practice.

The risk obsessed and risk-averse methods forced onto practitioners post-Crime and Disorder Act 1998 have been badged as ‘effective’ and ‘evidence-based’ youth justice practice. In reality, they have compelled practitioners to comply with mechanised, technical modes of practice (e.g. heavily quantified risk assessment and intervention models, off the shelf intervention programmes) that have undermined both their expertise and discretion. This is the ‘korrectional karaoke’ that John Pitts chastised the Government for so many years ago.

The Government longstanding commitment to risk-led youth justice policy and practice (albeit soon to be redressed, we hope, by implementation of AssetPlus) has inevitably produced risk-led understandings of children’s lives and risk-led interventions to prevent offending. Consequently, experienced, resourceful and talented YOS staff have been neutered – forced into responding to children in the most simplistic and damaging ways (e.g. through risk-driven labelling, excessive intervention and control) due to their use of a restrictive and biased practice framework (the Scaled Approach) that dumbs down the complexities of children’s lives and hamstrings practice innovation.

Worse still, the negative nature of this prescribed practice undermines the practitioner-child relationship. Practitioners need to negotiate the contradiction of pursuing voluntary and positive engagement by the children in enforced, court-ordered interactions that portray them as blameworthy and irresponsible. The irony is stark – both practitioners and children are required to form engaging relationships as part of processes with which they have been forced to comply. The goal is for both parties to want to be where they have to be; to support something that they are made to do!

 The positive, progressive practitioner

But all is not lost. Practitioners are not the passive, helpless automatons that they may be (possibly inadvertently) portrayed as and prescribed into by YJB ‘effective’ practice guidelines. They do not require spoon-feeding. They do not need to be slaves to the machine. Practitioners are resourceful professionals who can mediate, moderate, mitigate and manipulate centralised practice demands to fit their experience and to fit the real-lives of the children they work in partnership with – read more here.  They can fit practice demands to their local, organisational and individual contexts and agendas. They can operate ‘under the radar’ of Government and local authorities, maintaining an invisibility that enables innovative and discretionary practice beyond the reductionist remit of YJB ‘effective practice’. This has been a badly kept secret in the YJS for many a year. In fact, the Government has finally shown signs of giving into the inevitability that practitioners will practice (not blindly follow) by introducing changes to youth justice processes that embrace expertise, discretion, flexibility and diversity.

Contemporary youth justice provides the space and flexibility for the discretionary diversion of children from the formal YJS (e.g. through the new pre-court sentencing process) and provides the promise of more voice for practitioners (and children) in a new (AssetPlus) assessment and intervention framework. But these changes are yet to bed in. They are nascent, emerging, evolving. They are promised and promising, not real and realised.  But they are undoubtedly a step in the right direction – towards a positive, truly evidence-based youth justice.

About our bloggers

Dr Stephen Case is Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Swansea University. His main research interest is the promotion of a ‘Children First’ model of youth justice through evidence-based, diversionary, participatory and rights-based practice – set out in his book ‘Positive Youth Justice: Children First, Offenders Second’ (Haines and Case 2015).

Professor Kevin Haines is a Professor of Criminology and Youth Justice at Swansea University. He serves as the Director of the Centre for Criminal Justice and Criminology. Professor Haines is a Deputy Director of the Research Institute for Applied Social Sciences at Swansea, and also a founding board member of the Welsh Centre for Crime and Social Justice.

One response to “The dangers of ignoring practitioner voices in youth justice”

  1. […] This blog was authored by Professor Kevin Haines and Dr Stephen Case and was originally posted on the Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice Website.  The original post can be viewed here. […]

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