Secure schools are the key to effective rehabilitation

Last month, Labour MP David Lammy published his government-commissioned review into into the treatment of, and outcomes for, black and minority ethnic (BME) individuals in the criminal justice system. It identified a number of problems with Britain’s justice system. But, its finding that the proportion of BME children held in custody has significantly increased over the past ten years was particularly concerning.

Over the past decade, the total number of all children held in custody has fallen by 66%. However, the share of Asian children as a proportion of the total youth custody population has risen by 75% and the share of Black children has risen by 67%. This means that, at any time, BME children now make up over 400 of the average 960 children in custody.

Institutions which hold such children have proven to be woefully inadequate at rehabilitation: over two thirds of children reoffend within 12 months of their release, substantially higher than the reoffending rate for adult offenders. In fact, Ministry of Justice figures show that Black young people have the highest reoffending rate.

it is therefore unsurprising that young offending is linked with not being in education, employment or training (NEET). Figures show that young men who are NEET are five times more likely to have a criminal record than their peers. The large population of BME children in youth custody is therefore likely to be increasing their risk of not finding employment or furthering their education.

High reoffending is increasingly posing a danger to the British economy. The expected fall in economic migrants arriving in the UK after Brexit will lead to a shortage in workers available to UK companies, particularly in companies who pay lower wages. There is a way to mitigate the risk posed by this looming labour shortage: raising the labour market participation rates of social groups with stubbornly low employment rates, such as the disabled and ex-offenders.

Evidence suggests that the employment rate for ex-offenders is significantly lower than for the general population. Last year, the Government revealed that their data suggested that just 25% of ex-offenders were in employment. In contrast, a record 75% of the wider population are in employment. .

One of the major reasons for this is the poor education and skills of ex-offenders. The government-commissioned Taylor Review of the Youth Justice System, published last year, found that “many of the children in the youth justice system have had little or no engagement in education”.

To redress this, Bright Blue recently recommended establishing many more ‘secure schools’. ‘Secure schools’ are custodial establishments - where young offenders are held day and night - of around 60-70 young offenders. They are set up within schools legislation, commissioned in England in a similar way to alternative provision free schools, and governed and inspected as schools. This makes them significantly different to institutions which are currently used to detain children. Children in such institutions receive an average of only 17 hours of education per week.  

In December last year, the Government announced that it would establish a pilot of two secure schools in England and Wales. However, to really make an impact, the Government must substantially increase the number of secure schools as soon as possible.

Another major cause of high NEET levels among young ex-offenders is negative employer attitudes. A recent survey found that that 50% of employers would not consider employing an offender or ex-offender. David Lammy is therefore right to advocate that ex-offenders can apply to have their crimes ‘sealed’ - so an employer can no longer see the offences in criminal records check - if they can prove they have reformed. Such a policy has been implemented for many public-sector roles in the US and a recent report found that this had “dramatically improved the public-sector employment prospects of individuals with a criminal record”.

Effective rehabilitation is not just in the interests of young people themselves, but it would also provide a huge benefit to the British economy in this period of near full employment.

James Dobson is a senior researcher at Bright Blue