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Transforming Youth Justice: Does Data Hold the Answer?

Monday 11 December 2017

Marc Radley's picture
By Marc Radley
At the Youth Justice Convention (YJC) in November, I heard Penelope Gibbs propose we make the point that young offenders are lost at sea without a life raft and it’s our job to bring them back to shore. It’s a powerful metaphor - and one that perfectly describes crime being a symptom of a problem, not a cause. 
 
If we’re going to see real change, we all need to think about youth justice differently. But in the absence of clear leadership (and the power to get the associated budgets), can youth offending teams take the initiative in reform? 
 
The overarching messages from the 36 recommendations in the Taylor report are clear: treat young offenders as children first, target work with families and collaborate with other agencies to halt –and even reverse – criminal behaviour before reaching adulthood. 
 
But the keynotes at the convention were lacking clarity and detail about how the government will respond in any kind of immediate timescale.
 
Instead, I found the consensus at YJC was pretty clear: it’s time for YOTs to stop waiting for direction and guidance. We must just “get on with it”. Of course, that’s easier said than done. With budgets and workloads under increasing pressure, YOT leaders could be forgiven for feeling hamstrung. But this doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.
 
At YJC, I continued the conversation within a network of forward-thinking youth justice practitioners who are driving reforms of their own. Here’s how they’re doing it.
 

Thinking regionally 

Forming and maintaining regional partnerships is a great way to target investment and use limited resources effectively – a closer understanding of local challenges and needs means they can tailor better and quicker responses to emerging issues.
 
But this requires mature partnerships as well as confidence & trust. It also requires that decisions being made are the right ones, with prevention in mind, and that each local area’s long term best interests are at heart, while also optimising the way resources are used.
 
The solution is building and using robust and representative information and evidence to back decision-making and working out which formal and informal interactions work best over time in response to specific issues operating in and out of specific areas. Finding new ways to involve and communicate with stakeholders & the public is key to implementing a new and transformed response to troubled and troubling behaviour.
 

Enriched case management

To truly understand a child’s current behaviour – and the reasons why they have entered the youth justice system – it’s vitally important to take a wide view. You need to appreciate and record data about the realities of their whole lives. That way, a picture can be built to map out experiences and relationships which lead to their current circumstances and properly engage with this.
 
By building a sophisticated timeline of events (beyond AssetPlus), potential triggers like trauma and other adverse childhood experiences ACE’s can be more easily recognised and current behaviour better understood and responded to. This not only helps to build insight to discover the root causes of issues, but also builds positive lives and relationships.
 
Last year’s GovernUp report by Harvey Redgrave also highlighted the importance of preventative and early help work in devolving criminal justice (specifically youth justice). It called for partnership funding to be ringfenced, and the need to consider selective investment. 
 

Studying the results of interventions

When operating under limited time and budgets, it’s important to see the effects of interventions across areas and communities. Here, putting the power of quality data and information into the hands of practice and partnerships really starts to shine through. 
 
For instance, our ChildView tools allow granular enrichment and tracking of data previously deemed “less important”, such as undiagnosed speech and language difficulty, which enables a greater focus on complex and interrelated issues. ChildView also holds information to screen for trauma so you can highlight and target individuals who are at risk. Trauma being a leading hidden factor in persistent youth offending.
 
Investing in practitioner awareness and imagination in engagement can also be tracked – including less formal agreements and interventions. This shows how collaboration and aligned responses can create greater impacts on individuals and the wider population. It also provides additional confidence and evidence in the business case for further investment.
 

Generating insight through the data story

Uniquely enriching and combining individual sources of data together enables Youth Justice Services to map and see subtle emerging trends. This allows them to fully explore the complexities of relationships as well as cause and effect.
 
But as anyone in a learning organisation knows, it’s not just about procedure and the technology of efficiency. To generate valuable insight, human influence and skills need to be applied and the best fit technology tools designed, owned and used by the frontline. Only then can teams generate trusted and useful information that’s fit for adapting and refining practice policy and partnership responses.
 
Changing the way we look at data in youth justice is vitally important to transforming the way the entire sector views vulnerable children in the system. By investing in relationship skills and by employing greater imagination, youth justice can move away from a culture of performance statistics. They can instead use information to produce distinct knowledge and know how to turn around the fortunes of young people, their future families and communities.
 

Using data to inform local decision making 

The general feeling of delegates at the Youth Justice Convention was that while work still needs to be done by Government in terms of removing barriers to system reform, youth justice partnerships can stop waiting and rediscover a focus on using data and information to accelerate reform. 
 
Furthermore, teams can build confidence to act and to create better impacts locally – using limited resources – in individual neighbourhoods across regional partnerships.
 
But it’s not just about capturing data; it’s about the stories that data can tell and how aggregate data allows stakeholders to accurately visualise and relate responses to real lives. We then need to create and share new metaphors to help people understand how we can eliminate most youth crime. With the right use of data, information and knowledge, we can show them the sea and the storm that caused the shipwreck – and help them to understand why we’re throwing our vulnerable young people a life raft.
 

 

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