The case for moving towards a preventative approach in relation to offending behaviour is something of a hot topic for policy makers and strategy writers right now.
Last month we saw the production of the Justice Strategy which articulated the aspiration of addressing the issues underlying offending to prevent offending or intervene before offending patterns have become established. It discussed adverse childhood experiences (including neglect, abuse, domestic violence and family imprisonment) and explained how these experiences link to poorer social and health outcomes, including offending behaviour.
Of course, more of us experience adverse childhood experiences than go on to be involved in serious offending, but for those children and adults who do go on to offend, we see high levels of adverse childhood experiences, trauma, poverty and exclusion. It is to be warmly welcomed that the Justice Strategy is focusing on these issues, and what we ultimately need to be engaging with to prevent offending in the first place.
However…I am increasingly struck by the recent production of some really well-written and preventative focused strategies; the vision, aspirations, ethos and strategic direction is in alignment with a preventative approach. But, what we do, and what we plan to do, doesn’t align to what is articulated in these strategies. For instance, the delivery plan for the Justice Strategy focuses heavily on improvements in the traditional justice agencies – police, prisons, courts. Whilst welcome, if we really are to make progress on prevention, the Strategy needs to take action on trauma and mental health supports (in schools and communities as well as more specialist resources), domestic violence prevention, housing, poverty, education, employability, youth work and good quality facilities. We know these are some of the things that prevent offending and support both children and adults to lead good, happy lives. Yet despite knowing this is what we should be investing in, we continue not to do so.
Our 2014 research with community councils into young people and crime shows how nuanced understanding about the reasons for offending, and what can be done to prevent it, is. Youth work has an important role to play here, and it appears that there is a good understanding of this in communities. Over half of respondents felt there was a lack of facilities and amenities for young people in their local area, followed by unemployment/lack of opportunities and poor transport provision. Top suggestions for reducing youth crime included more affordable facilities for young people (not just sport), increased police involvement and better community engagement, with adults really listening to young people and hearing their needs.
So, it seems communities themselves tend to have a good understanding of what is happening and why, and can suggest many solutions for addressing it, if only they had the support and resources to act.
A key priority for us as a partner with the new Institute for Inspiring Children’s Futures is to help progress this shift to prevention, and support it through working with people and communities, not as a remote entity. Some of this shift requires new financial models and ways of structuring organisations – leaders who are responsible for outcomes rather than services, and public services able to borrow so they can invest to save in the longer term without affecting current crisis/acute provision.
Yet we also need to change the way we think and how we approach ‘doing things’. So often when we look at implementing strategies, we start from what we are currently doing or already have planned. If we really are to move to a preventative focus, we need to think carefully about what we are trying to do, how best to achieve this, and who is going to do it and how. Obviously, we need to work with current systems/structures, but starting from a space where we think about the best ways of doing something and how we can do this, not from what we are currently doing and how we can tinker this slightly to be more preventative.
It’s these big issues and changes that the new Institute is seeking to address, through generating, collating and promoting the exchange of knowledge between academic, legislator, policy and practice communities, as well as children and young people and families, with the aim of securing better futures for children across the world.
Ultimately, whilst progress is undoubtedly being made, we are still working our way towards a culture that requires us to think more fundamentally about how and why we are doing things. Only then can we describe our approach as truly preventative.