A punitive climate in the 1990s had a considerable impact on the adult and youth correctional populations in England and Wales. From 1998 to 2008, the prison population in the United Kingdom grew more than 26 percent and prison expenditures increased $1 billion between 2004 and 2009 (Mills et al. 2010). The rising prison population gradually led to overcrowding. In 2009, nearly one-fourth of the prison population was housed in overcrowded facilities (Mills et al. 2010).
Penal reformers sought alternative sanctions that could reduce the record number of prisoners. If the government could establish options other than custody, it would enable judges to issue more community sentences, especially for low-level offenders. England and Wales established two community-based options for offenders in 2005: Suspended Sentence Orders (SSO) and Community Orders.
SSOs and Community Orders are similar in that offenders serve both sentences in the community. The difference is that SSOs are custodial sentences (used for sentences of less than 12 months) while Community Orders are not. SSOs are more demanding than Community Orders because they include additional requirements (e.g., supervision, substance abuse treatment, unpaid work) (Mair and Mills 2009). By 2006, more than 30,000 persons per quarter served a Community Order. SSOs grew at a slower rate, with 11,000 persons per quarter serving a SSO within two years (Mair and Mills 2009).
Prior to SSOs, the criminal justice system in England and Wales abandoned suspended sentences because they were not reducing custodial sentences. They were actually increasing custody because individuals serving a suspended sentence were imprisoned for minor violations (Mair and Mills 2009). The government’s hope was that SSOs and Community Orders would diminish the use of secure custody, but this was not the case. Sentence reforms in England and Wales negligibly reduced the prison population. From 2004, the year prior to the start of SSOs and Community Orders, to 2009, short-term prison sentences declined three percent. However, over the past 15 years short-term prison sentences actually increased 57 percent (Mills et al. 2010).
The total prison population in England and Wales increased between 2005 and 2008, which suggests that SSOs and Community Orders have not been successful in diverting offenders from custody. If anything, these sentences may be nothing more than an expensive substitute for court-ordered fines (Mair and Mills 2009). The expanded use of community sentences for low-level offenders and the increase in the prison population indicates that more offenders are facing stiffer penalties for less serious offenses (Mills et al. 2010).
The juvenile justice system in England and Wales has faced similar issues with custody. England has one of the highest rates of youth crime and violence in Europe. It also has one of the largest youth custodial populations in Europe. From the early 1900s through the 1980s, England and Wales made the abolition of youth custody a central objective. In the late 1980s, youth justice shifted from rehabilitation to societal protection (McAuley 2010). By the 1990s, the shift greatly impacted the prevalence of youth custody.
In 1992, there were 100 juveniles under the age of 15 in custody in England. In 2006, the number of imprisoned juveniles age 15 and under increased to 824 (Allison 2009). The overall number of youths under age 18 in custody in England and Wales has more than doubled over the last two decades. In 1991, there were less than 1,500 youths in custody. In 2008, there were approximately 3,000 youths in custody (McAuley 2010). As of June 2011 there were 2,253 juveniles in secure custody in England (Dodds 2011).
There are concerns surrounding youth imprisonment in England and Wales. A majority of the youths in custody committed a non-violent offense. Youth courts imprisoned 16 percent of juveniles for a violating their conditional release (Solomon and Allen 2009). There are problems with the facilities as well. Reports from independent inspectors reveal deplorable conditions inside juvenile prisons and a severe lack of rehabilitative services. Of the youths released from custody in England, 82 percent are reconvicted within two years (Allison 2009).
English and Welsh officials made changes to reduce court ordered youth custody. Unlike the adult system in which reformers made community sanctions available to judges as alternatives to custody, youth reformers created more enduring reforms through legislation.
Policymakers passed the Criminal Justice Act of 1982 as one of the first pieces of modern youth policy reform. The Act set limits on judges ordering custodial sentences by requiring one of three criteria to be met prior to incarceration: the youth has been unresponsive to non-custodial punishment; custody will ensure public safety; or the severity of the offense warrants custodial placement (Allen 1991). The Act effectively reduced youth custody. The year before the Act there were approximately 7,700 youths ages 14 to 16 in secure custody in England and Wales. In 1988, there were only 3,200 youths in that range in custody (Allen 1991).
The Criminal Justice Act of 1982 reduced youth incarceration, but it did not establish alternative placements. The Children Act of 1989 and the Criminal Justice Act of 1991 reconciled this by separating youth offenders and youths in need of care. The Acts collectively encouraged youth courts to order diversionary alternatives such as informal warnings and police cautioning (reprimands) to keep low-risk youths in their communities. Youth custody declined considerably over the next several years (Akester 2000).
In 1993, two 10 year-old boys abducted and killed a young child. This fueled societal concern over youth criminality and in a panic, a punitive-minded public demanded more imprisonment for youth offenders (Hazel 2008a). A year later, passage of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 created stiffer penalties for juvenile offenders. Previously, only juveniles as young as 15 faced incarceration, but the new legislation extended custodial sentences to youths age 13 and 14 and detention to youths as young as 10 (Graham and Moore 2006).
The result of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act was an increase in youth custody during a time when youth crime decreased. Between 1993 and 1998, custodial sentences for 15 to 17 year-olds doubled and by 2004, nearly 7,000 youths of all ages were sentenced to custody (Graham and Moore 2006). Juvenile prisons experienced overcrowding to the point that the government had to intervene. In his election campaign in the late 1990s, Tony Blair offered a politically safe solution. He did not address the prevalence of youth custody but instead pledged to reduce the length of time that young offenders spend in juvenile prisons (Allen 1991).
The United Kingdom passed the Crime and Disorder Act in 1998. The legislation introduced orders for handling certain classes of offenders (e.g., anti-social youths, sex offenders) and parents of offenders. It also realigned juvenile justice management in the UK from a centralized agency to local authorities (National Archives). The realignment was an attempt to reduce the £50,000 per year cost for placing one youth in secure custody and shift funding from custodial facilities to preventative and early intervention services (Hazel 2008a). The Crime and Disorder Act renounced the debate between punishment and rehabilitation and instead focused on preventing youth offending. The belief was that troubled youths could be identified through such factors as gang involvement, drug or alcohol use, and problems in school or family. Social workers could then provide these youths with attention and rehabilitation services.
Before the Crime and Disorder Act, there were about 50 independent and locally based preventative services across the UK. Following its passage, the government centralized all preventative services (inverse realignment) so that one government-appointed person could manage the entire system (Allen 2002). The legislation established 155 youth offending teams to coordinate youth services, assess youth risk factors, and act as a liaison between youths and courts. Youth offending teams are multi-disciplinary and may consist of a police officer, social worker, and experts from the education and health fields (Graham and Moore 2006; Allen 2002).
The Crime and Disorder Act reduced custody by shortening its duration. The average time between arrest and sentencing was 142 days in 1997. The Act reduced the delay to 83 days (Allen 2002). It also introduced detention and training orders, which last between four and 24 months and allow youths to serve half of their sentence in custody and the other half under community supervision. Juvenile justice personnel meet prior to a youth’s release and to create a plan for community supervision and treatment (Allen 2002). Youth Courts also can require parenting orders, in which parents must take control of their children and participate in parenting skills classes. If they do not participate, parents would have to pay a fine. If they do not pay the fine, they risk imprisonment (Allen 2002).
In 1999, the UK passed the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act. The unique legislation extended restorative justice to Youth Courts. The Act created alternative sanctions such as reparation, mediation, unpaid work, curfew mandates, monitored school attendance, participation in treatment or education courses, and orders to stay away from certain persons or places (Akester 2000).
The government initiated the Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Program (ISSP) as an alternative to custodial placement in 2001. Juveniles in ISSP are subject to 24-hour a-day community surveillance and receive at least 25 hours of weekly services such as education, interpersonal skills training, and family support. Either police provide surveillance or juveniles are monitored electronically. In some cases, juvenile justice personnel monitor youths through phone calls that use voice recognition technology (Allen 2002).
The ISSP is cost effective but it has not reduced the youth custody population. At £8,500 for a six-month stay, it costs far less to place a youth in ISSP compared to custody, which costs £25,400 for a six-month placement (Junger-Tas 2006). An evaluation of the ISSP found that the intervention had no effect on reconviction rates but the program led to a 30 to 50 percent reduction in the volume of crime that participants in ISSP commit after completion of the program (Little et. al 2004). Intensive supervision options are effective at reducing the length of time that juveniles spend in custody. However, if intensive supervision continues to supplement rather than act as an alternative to custody, the population of juveniles in custody will not decline.
Youth prisons in the UK remain costly and flawed. From 2003 to 2004, England and Wales spent £293.5 million on youth imprisonment. During that time, 80 percent of the youths released from imprisonment were reconvicted for a new crime (Goldson and Muncie 2008). Officials have committed to reducing the number of incarcerated youths. The Youth Justice Board, which oversees juvenile justice in England and Wales, announced the goal of keeping youth custodial sentences to no more than six percent of all sentences (Graham and Moore 2006).
England and Wales passed several pieces of legislation addressing youth custody. Legislation is effective because it is an enduring legal precedent that guides judicial decision-making. Because youth courts can order custody for youth as young as 10, some legislation has resulted in net widening. This legislative ambivalence obfuscates the country’s objective, which has been to shift from custody-based to diversionary youth justice.