Child criminals are being “set up to fail” on release from custody because there is inadequate support in place to help them turn their life around, according to inspectors.
The probation and prison watchdogs reviewed the support boys aged 12 to 17 received from services in their first three months after release.
They followed 50 who had all committed serious crimes or were repeat offenders and had been sentenced to detention and training orders, which meant they served half their time in custody and half in the community.
They all served time in the five young offender institutions (YOI) across England and Wales – Parc in Wales, Cookham Wood in Kent, Feltham in London, Werrington in Staffordshire and Wetherby in West Yorkshire.
In the three months after release, half of the group had been investigated by police, 10 had been convicted of more crimes and six of the group had gone missing.
Those who had reformed were “the exception rather than the rule”, inspectors said.
Richard Garside, the director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, called for the number of children sent to prison to be reduced, adding: “On just about every measure – housing, education and training, physical and mental health, drug and alcohol services, social services – the state is failing children and young people leaving prison.
“Unsurprisingly, many of them get into further trouble with the law and go back to prison.”
Chief inspector of probation Justin Russell, who took on the role in June, said the results of the review painted a “grim picture”, adding: “This is certainly the most disturbing report I’ve read since starting in my new role.”
Nearly 80% of children and young people in custody have carried out violent crimes, robbery, burglary or sexual offences.
Between 2017 and 2018, the monthly number of people in youth custody was 894, with the average sentence being just over 16 months – while around 550 are released every year.
Mr Russell said: “We were very disappointed to see how little progress there had been.
“If the right services are not in place, these often-vulnerable people are being set up to fail.
“There are specific programmes to help individuals prepare for release, but none of the people in our sample attended one.”
Mr Russell said it was “immensely disappointing” to find problems from 2015 remain and it was no surprise one of the offenders told inspectors he felt “like a parcel”.
He said a “major reason” for the problems was “poor support services” with planning meetings taking place too late so adequate services were not put in place before release, adding: “We found that the period in custody was focused very much on behaviour management and on work in custody, it wasn’t really preparing people properly for release.”
There were still young people who days before release still did not have accommodation arranged, he said, which hindered efforts to set them up in education or register them for health services.
Children’s social services were “falling down” on their responsibility of sorting accommodation – but youth offending teams were “quite passive” and not “advocating” for the young people either, he said.
There was a “mad scramble immediately before release to try and find somewhere to put these young people” because councils were “reluctant” at a time of austerity to keep paying for their care home place while they were in custody, but described this as a “false economy”.
He called on the Government to come up with a “national accommodation strategy” for young people coming out of care.
Chief inspector of prisons Peter Clarke said: “In some cases, planning started just 10 days prior to release or even after release – this is too little, too late to be effective.
“A lot of the activity that we saw in custody focused on containing children and young people, managing their behaviour or simply trying to fill their time.”
Within the first three months of release, out of the 50 young offenders followed by inspectors:
– Some 37 needed help from children’s social care services, but only six of these received help.
– There were seven put in supported accommodation – usually for 16 to 17-year-olds and a bedsit style arrange with visits from a support worker – which Mr Russell described as an “unregulated sector of care accommodation”.
– Just 44% were given the support they need for drug problems, while only 11 went into education or training immediately after release.
– There were 29 who had been in local authority care or had been in the past. Just one returned to the same accommodation they had before custody.
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “Strong resettlement support both inside and outside prison is a vital pillar of rehabilitation.
“We must improve standards so they are consistent and enable young offenders to move away from crime for good.
“That is why we are reviewing resettlement services at all young offenders institutions and are working closely with external agencies which provide accommodation, education, training and employment to improve support on release.”