Vast implications of COVID-19 on youth justice investigated in new research project

The exceptional impact of COVID-19 on the youth justice system will be documented in a new partnership project between the Standing Committee for Youth Justice (SCYJ) and Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU).

The project aims to understand the unprecedented implications that the pandemic has had on the system and the vulnerable children it works with. This marks the first collaboration between the SCYJ, an alliance of over 60 not-for-profit organisations working to improve the youth justice system in England and Wales, and the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies at MMU, a research centre underpinned by the ethos of creating youth informed and youth led research and policy.

Although COVID-19 will have a societal effect on all young people, a disproportionate number of children in the youth justice system have complex needs, are from minority ethnic backgrounds, have been excluded from school and have been exposed to adverse childhood experiences, and so it is expected the impacts of COVID-19 are likely to be worse for this group. Last year, there were over 60,000 arrests of children, with an average of around 860 children in custody at any one time.

The project will pool the expertise of SCYJ’s network of members and sector partners across England and Wales, to develop insight and recommendations for policy and practice. It also builds on MCYS’ strong partnerships within the youth justice system developed through the award-winning Greater Manchester Youth Justice University Partnership (GMYJUP), a collaboration between MCYS and the ten regional Greater Manchester youth justice services.

Researchers will explore the impact of COVID-19 on justice-involved children’s service provision, education, employment and wellbeing, how professionals have had to adapt to remote working, the impact of the delay of criminal trials and the safety of children in custodial settings.

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of the UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19, findings and recommendations from the 18-month project will be shared widely with practitioners and decision-makers to shape policy and practice.

Pippa Goodfellow, Director of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice (SCYJ) said:

“In this unprecedented public health emergency, the youth justice sector is working intensively through the many challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are immediate and long-term implications for all children and young people in our communities, particular challenges for those in the youth justice system, and exceptionally critical risks for children in custody.

“We are delighted to be collaborating with MMU on this important project, bringing our research and policy expertise together, to shine a light on the impact of the pandemic for justice-involved children and the systems and services supporting them.”

Professor Smithson, Head of the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies (MCYS) at Manchester Metropolitan University said:

“The youth justice system is facing a strange hiatus; on the one hand, criminal trials have been delayed and arrests are down, while on the other, existing issues of BAME disproportionality, mental health, domestic abuse and school engagement are areas of acute risk for justice-involved children.

“There is an urgent need to develop a clear understanding of the impact of the pandemic on these children and those who work with them.

“By involving and working with children in our project, we will address the usual top-down research hierarchies inherent in youth justice research and ensure that children’s voices are prioritised.”

The research will involve interviews and surveys of statutory partners, including the Youth Justice Board and Ministry of Justice, third sector organisations, senior national policy and decision-makers, and children with lived experiences.

SCYJ Youth Justice Young Advocates Project Update

Amania Scott-Samuels, our Policy and Engagement Assistant, shares an exciting update about our Youth Justice Young Advocates project and opportunities to get involved

At the SCYJ we have wanted to develop opportunities for youth participation in our work for a long time. In recent years, in consultation with an member expert group on participation, we developed a participation strategy, which included plans for our first youth participation project.

From this, the Young Advocates project was created, thanks to the generous support of Children in Need. The name of the project was intended to encourage embodiment of the advocacy role beyond the group’s meetings, within each young participant’s community and wider society.

Thank you to all those that were involved in the consultation, planning and recruitment stages, we could not have done this without you!

What is the Young Advocates project?

The Young Advocates project, graciously funded by Children in Need and in partnership with Leaders Unlocked offers young people between 14-20 who have youth justice experience a chance to:

  • Become representatives for children and young people across the country as ‘Young Advocates’ for youth justice improvement
  • Comment on important policy topics
  • Gain and develop leadership, research, presentation and critical thinking skills
  • Conduct peer research about the youth justice system with other young people across the country with similar experiences
  • Collaborate with and feedback to justice sector professionals and decision makers
  • Receive a number of AQA accredited qualifications in areas of leadership and social research
  • Take part in shadowing, mentoring or other workplace insight related to their personal interests or career aspirations

We wanted to make sure the project was youth-led from the outset, with the Young Advocates identifying the areas of interest, methods of research and means of presenting their findings back to stakeholders. This focus on coproduction has been aided through the ongoing support at meetings from the Young Adult Advisors on Criminal Justice who also have experiences of the justice system and took part in a similar project with Leaders Unlocked.

We were delighted to recruit 15 Young Advocates over the Summer of 2020, despite the challenges posed by COVID-19. We have since established a core group of 8 young people who represent diverse backgrounds and experience and are from different parts of the country.

What have the Young Advocates been getting up to?

Developing peer research

Our first Young Advocates meeting in September was held online, where we got to know each other and talked about what works does and doesn’t currently work well in the youth justice system. In October’s meeting the Young Advocates identified three areas of interest that they will focus on until mid-2021 and the reasons why they are so important to them:

Jail – The Young Advocates feel ‘jail makes or breaks you’ and that there is a revolving door whereby young people keep ending up back in prison. Young people are not given enough information surrounding jail including about what transitioning from the youth to adult system will look like.

Stereotypes – The Young Advocates expressed concern about young people in general and particularly young people of colour being stereotyped too often and by everyone that they come in contact with. Police, courts and judges’ decisions seem to be impacted by their preconceived opinions.

Education and warning signs – The Young Advocates highlighted that teachers spend the most time with young people but do not know what it looks like when a young person is beginning to head down the wrong road. They shared that young people do not feel listened to by the adults in their life and end up being criminalised too quickly when they really need support.

The Young Advocates decided that they would like to engage with as many and as broader range of young people as possible, through a combination of workshops and one to one interviews. In our most recent sessions they designed research questions for each topic and took part in a session centred around developing social research skills, including how to create a safe space for sharing and how to facilitate productive discussions.

Influencing decision-making

We are also trying to identify ongoing opportunities for the Young Advocates to engage in current debates and share their expertise, and we are delighted that four of the Young Advocates have already attended landmark policy-influencing meetings:

  • In October, 2 Young Advocates attended a roundtable with Dame Carol Black and contributed key insights from their experiences and knowledge of their communities to be fed directly into her current drugs review.
  • In early November, 4 Young Advocates attended a roundtable with the Youth Endowment Fund centred around focusing efforts to reduce violence affecting young people.

Feedback on the input and insight of the Young Advocates has been extremely positive, with the Young Advocates themselves expressing pride and gratitude at the opportunity to share their narrative and speak on behalf of their communities. We will certainly continue to give them opportunities to do so.

What’s next?

  • In the coming weeks and months our Young Advocates will conduct peer research with young people across the country about their thoughts, feelings and experiences of the priority research topic areas.
  • The Young Advocates are on track to receive 6 entry-level AQA accredited qualifications by the end of the year which will culminate into a short presentation.
  • By the end of the project’s first phase – Spring 2021 – upon completion of the peer research and reflection on their findings, the Young Advocates will develop recommendations and feed them back to stakeholders. The Young Advocates will have demonstrated skills earning them up to 12 AQA accredited qualifications between entry-level and level 3.

Despite the many challenges presented by having to work remotely, we are incredibly proud of all the work of the Young Advocates so far, as well as their investment and commitment to the project. We can’t wait for you to hear more about what they discover in their research and their proposals for change.

If you have a network of young people you think our Young Advocates should talk to as part of their research or if you know a young person you think might want to join the Young Advocates project please contact amania@scyj.org.uk

More information about the project, what the Young Advocates will be getting up to and what can be gained from taking part is available here. You can also find out more by watching my original project presentation to our members here.

Introducing our new SCYJ board members!

For the past couple of months, we have been recruiting for new board members to help expand the expertise on our current SCYJ board. We identified gaps in our board in terms of grassroots and community-based frontline work, communications expertise, and experience in strengthening our work to address racial and ethnic disparities in the youth justice system.

We were also particularly keen to incorporate younger voices onto the board and so actively advertised for the young board members – those between 18 and 25 years old, with an interest in and/or experience of the youth justice system.

We were amazed at the number of fantastic applications we received, and we now have the pleasure of welcoming 7 new SCYJ board members! Read on to find out more about our new additions...

Shadae Cazeau

Shadae Cazeau has several years’ experience in providing leadership and policy advice on discrimination, advancing equality and the youth justice system (YJS), including four years at the Independent Office for Police Conduct. Shadae is a qualified Barrister with a focus on crime and is well versed with the issues that face young people in the criminal justice system. Shadae is currently the Head of Policy for EQUAL, which has a particular focus on addressing the poorer outcomes experienced by BAME communities and Muslims, using policy and influence to do so.

Gavin McKenna

Gavin McKenna has a passion and interest in supporting young people within the youth justice system and fighting social issues that impact and affect young people. Gavin has founded and established his own company, Reach Every Generation, to support marginalized young people involved in or at risk of criminal exploitation, serious violence, and crime, with the belief that it is paramount to not only offer hope and opportunity to the young people directly but also empower and equip professionals that work with such young people daily.

Ebinehita Iyere

Young people have often described Ebinehita Iyere as the bridge between them and the systems and services they access or cannot access, and she works to ensure that young people and grassroots organisations feel heard and supported. Through working with and for young people she has been able to co-create and embed participation in the way she works and encouraging young people to also be part of the social justice issues that affect them. Ebinehita set up her own safe space for young women called Milk & Honey that allows young women and girls to feel empowered and heal from past experiences through 1:1 sessions and creative group projects. She is also the Youth Project Lead for London-based charity Juvenis.

Hannah Couchman

Hannah Couchman is a barrister with a background in social justice and a career spanning legal, policy and campaigning work. Hannah left the Bar to pursue policy and campaigning roles in human rights and is currently leading a campaign stream at Liberty. Hannah will soon move on from this role and take up the position of Senior Legal Officer at Rights of Women, specialising in criminal law. Hannah has worked with the SCYJ in previous roles, including as a Policy Officer specialising in youth court matters at the Magistrates’ Association, and she knows first-hand the value of collaborative working across the sector, bringing together the expertise required for complex and multidisciplinary insight.

Anne-Marie Day

Anne-Marie Day has many years’ experience within youth justice as a practitioner, policy adviser and researcher/ lecturer. Anne-Marie has advised senior ministers and civil servants on key issues within youth justice, including preventing violent extremism, anti-social behaviour, domestic abuse, and children in care. She has been an associate member of the SCYJ for several years during which she has engaged with various issues facing children and young people in the youth justice system; including contributing to written submissions on children in custody, and children in care. All of Anne-Marie’s research to date has been focused on the voices and perspectives of the children themselves, which has formed the basis of key recommendations to reform the youth justice system.

Ahmed Ibrahim

Ahmed passionately believes in effective and proactive youth representation and at present he sits on the national youth panel of the Independent Office of Police Conduct (IOPC) as the London panellist, advising the Director and policing chiefs on the issue of ‘improving trust and confidence in the criminal justice system for young people’. This work has enabled Ahmed to engage with over 800 young people across England and Wales, in finding solutions that work and sharing these with the most senior politicians including the Shadow Home Secretary and senior policing staff. Working with the IOPC has given Ahmed the platform to diversify the conversation in policing especially ensuring the voices of those that are often marginalised, specifically from the BAME community, are heard in tackling the issues of the criminal justice system.

Nadine Smith

Nadine Smith has a strong passion for criminal justice reform and has worked on projects both regionally and nationally that call for change and accountability in the justice system and local policing. Nadine has worked with HMPPS, Police and Crime Commissioners, MPs and an abundance of decision/policymakers across a wide range of projects, all with elevated youth voice being the main objective, from those that don’t usually have the opportunity to be heard.