According to Ulrich Beck, we live in a ‘risk society’. It is quite clear that at least within the western world he is right; noting the risk is everywhere and with this comes risk assessment. The risk posed to a person comes under health and safety, the risk of profit loss in business and the risk you may crash your car comes under insurance. True is the fact that humans are also risk assessed, especially criminals, they are assessed on the risk they pose society. The same is done for juvenile offenders and with these risk assessments comes an influence on their ‘intervention’ and punishment (as we still live in a society that seeks to punish rather than rehabilitate). This essay will examine the level of this influence and the weight it holds with and against other factors such as; public want, the present government, and resources.
The lack of a holistic approach in youth justice intervention has long been a criticism of the youth justice system, not only in England and Wales but also in Scotland and several western countries. However, evidence continually points out that this approach works.
‘The international research literature shows that the throughcare strategies with the most favourable results concerning reoffending rates are ‘holistic’; that is, focused on the whole range of an individuals’ needs and integrated with support in the prison and the community’ (Sapouna, et al., 2011).
The point that is reached here is that for a holistic intervention you need a holistic risk assessment. The questions that need to be asked are what do our risk assessments focus on, how to they ‘assess’, and for whom do they benefit?
Firstly, we are asking ‘what do our risk assessments focus on’ and for this we should take a look at ‘Asset Plus’ the assessment tool used by the Youth Justice Board of England and Wales. According to the Youth Justice Board for English and Wales Asset plus provided a structure for recording and analysing information.
In 2014 The Youth Justice Board for England and Wales claimed that Asset Plus covered these key areas:
‘• Offending behaviour
• Living arrangements
• Family and personal relationships
• Education, training and employment
• Substance use
• Physical health
• Emotional and mental health
• Perception of self and others
• Thinking and behaviour
• Attitudes to offending
• Motivation to change
• Positive factors
• Indicators of vulnerability
• Indicators of serious harm to others’
These are specific to board areas and in theory cover, not only a broad spectrum but allow a holistic assessment. According to the Daily Express, Chris grayling while Justice Secretary for the UK called on school staff to help plan new secure colleges in a bid to improve education for young offenders. This was a based on the fact the claim that most 15 to 17-year-olds in custody have been excluded from school at some point, while half of those are assessed as having the literacy levels of a seven to 11-year-old. This is information that to some level has been obtained through Asset Plus. Although Asset Plus seems to cover a broad holistic spectrum one wound have to ask to which level or levels this is until. The information may be gained that a young person’s education is deemed low and a reason for crime, but is the information gained as to why they have such a low educational level. If current educational methods do not work for this young person or these young people, is it of any benefit to building more ‘secure’ educational institutions in the system? Another example includes a case in Cardiff where a young male was convicted of assault, the boy ended up with a suspended sentence alongside other things and returned to a ‘normal’ life unsupervised as it was deemed not needed. The assessment of the boy concluded he was just reacting badly to his mother’s recent death and the boy continued to be aggressive, verbally abusive and generally angry. Youth workers working with the young person deemed it was a mixture of his mother’s death, doing badly at school and poverty at home that was leading to the violent outbursts, yet trying to address these things was completely useless. What was never addressed was the boy’s mother’s last conversation which concluded with ‘I hate you’ and the boy’s siblings forcing drugs upon him and his dad’s violent outbursts upon him.
Martin Stephenson believes that in risk clarification the negative aspects of young people’s lives tend to be overemphasised. One could argue further that one particular negative aspect is overemphasised and with this other negative aspects are completely missed.
Another factor for consideration is that determining the appropriate level of intervention is based primarily on two factors:
- likelihood of reoffending
- risk of serious harm’
One could consider the lack of an extra factor stating ‘what is best for the young person’ quite worrying, considering the potential influence this has upon an intervention. However, when talking about the ‘core profile’ section of Asset Plus the Youth Justice Board do mention it is used to develop a good understanding of the young person’s risks and needs. The Department of Education for the UK reminds us of the interesting focus that Finland has as within Finland young offenders under 15 are dealt with by child welfare authorities, with the system of criminal justice only being applied to those aged 15–17. They remind us further that the criterion for all child welfare interventions is whatever is in the best interest of the child and juvenile crime is viewed as arising from social conditions which should be addressed by further investment in health and children’s services. It’s somewhat curious that any department within the UK government would state this considering they generally following quite a different approach. In other articles, one has stated several times that the age for criminal responsibility there is 10 years of age.
Looking into what risk assessments focus on we can understand some level of how effective they are within practice, but to understand their influence on intervention better we must understand how they assess. The Youth Justice Board has been using a scaled approach to assessment since 2010 and claims that it should form the basis of all subsequent interventions with young people who have offended. Asset Plus itself works on the principle of adding the scores of 12 sections of its core profile and score four ‘static’ factors, to arrive at a total score between 0 and 64. Then combining it with prior criminal statistics develops an assessment for intervention. Depending on how much risk there is to serious harm the Asset Plus will change in size from only a core profile to a ‘full asset’.
The scores from the Asset will lead to three recommendations of intervention:
A score of 0–14 equals a standard intervention.
A score of 15–32 equals an enhanced intervention.
A score of 33–64 equals an intensive intervention.
(Youth Justice Board, 2014)
This shows that in theory Asset Plus has a significant influence on the intervention of the offender. In 2007 Stephen Case noted that in the older version there was a 69 per cent accuracy of ASSET in predicting reconviction. This shows an error of less than a third, nevertheless these errors affect living, breathing young human beings and so depending on the influence assessments have on intervention, can be detrimental. If the assessment is too low then the young person will not receive the required intervention, however, it is already widely noted that intensive interventions with those at low risk can have counterproductive results. As Stephen Case argued, “claims for ASSET’s effectiveness would be strengthened if its predictive score could be set against data concerning the predictive accuracy of clinical assessment, which utilises the diagnostic skills of individual practitioners to explain behaviour, assess motivation to change, and match intervention programme”.
Asset Plus seems like a very systematic, robotic method to a situation that would seem to require a more free-thinking approach. However, the Youth Justice Board remind us that the initial assessment provides the starting point for considering the intervention level. Other factors are to be included such as professional judgement, welfare considerations and risk of harm. They are quite clear that the final judgement should be used to inform the proposal made to the court or report to the youth offender panel.
Now that we understand the basics of Asset Plus one needs to understand whom does it benefit?
The Youth Justice Board for England and Wales stated that “all children and young people entering the youth justice system benefit from a structured needs assessment”.
Considering it has already been noted that Asset Plus has an error of 31% and that it is known to have considerable influence on the interventions although other factors are involved, this has to be deemed not completely true. Also considering the average population of young people in custody in percentage-wise is higher than the European average. Even though this has decreased dramatically over a decade it is approximated that in England and Wales, we lock up 1.4 children per 100,000 of the population, compared to 0.2 in Finland. Interestingly Finland also has lower reoffending rates. One would have to ask if such incarnation rates are for the benefit of the young offenders or appeasing societies fear, considering the London Evening Standard, BBC Panorama, The Telegraph and the Daily Mail have all claimed that the public what tougher sentences for youth carrying knives. Juliet Lyon has reminded us in the past that privatisation is also a cause for concern on whom benefits as nearly 10,000 prisoners (11.6% of the total prisoner population) are held in private prisons. This is could be a factor affecting risk assessment influence on intervention if further privatisation happens in the youth justice system. An example from America is the Kids for Cash scandal where Mid-Atlantic Youth Services Corp, a private prison company, was reported to have been found guilty of paying two judges $2.6m to send 2,000 children to their prison. Now, this hasn’t happened in the UK yet, but the current leadership is quite open to such options.
It is quite obvious that the risk assessment procedure in England and Wales has a significant impact on the intervention of a youth offender. It is also clear that Asset has a significant part in this, but not without the input of major professional judgement. Whether Asset Plus works or not is argued on both sides, but what has been acknowledged, even by its supporters, is that whatever the imperfections it is constantly improving and evolving. With this evolution of risk assessment incarceration and reoffending rates have gone down and with that future analysis will be very interesting to see.