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Beyond Youth Custody: Trauma and Young Offenders

30th November 2016

The recent ‘Trauma and Young Offenders’ report from Beyond Youth Custody (BYC) presents key findings from a review of the research and literature concerning trauma in the backgrounds of young people who offend. It collates what is known about trauma in young offenders and highlights how this knowledge is useful in informing resettlement practices.

According to evidence from successive studies, young people who come into contact with the criminal justice system have a disproportionate amount of childhood and adolescent trauma – ranging from emotional, physical and sexual abuse, to neglect, bullying, violence, bereavement and abandonment.

The BYC report explains the way in which trauma can blunt a young person’s capacity to manage emotions, and can also have implications for the formation and maintenance of relationships. The effects of previous trauma can, for example, erode a young person’s capacity to judge social situations, form attachments, cope with stress, consider long-term consequences, negotiate their way out of difficult situations and respond to authority.

Figures:

  • A quarter of boys and two in five girls in custody report suffering violence at home (Youth Justice Board 2007);
  • 27% of young men and 45% of young women disclose having spent some time in care (HM Inspectorate of Prisons 2011; Caplan, 1961);
  • 91% of young offenders convicted of murder or serious crime have experienced abuse and/or loss (Boswell, 1996);
  • In the general population, 1 in 10 children have a clinically diagnosed mental disorder (ONS, 2004). Rates of mental health problems are at least three times higher for young people in the criminal justice system (Harrington et al., 2005);
  • 95% of young people in prison are estimated to have at least one mental health problem, and 80% have more than one (Lader et al., 2000; Durcan, 2008);
  • 60-90% of young people in custody have communication disorders, compared to 5-7% in the general population (Hughes et al., 2012).

BYC recommends that trauma and mental health concerns are effectively identified in young offenders at the earliest opportunity, with alternatives to custody being provided where appropriate.

As the available evidence suggests that the effects of previous trauma can narrow the scope for generating positive resettlement outcomes with young people and young adults, the BYC report highlights the importance of trauma-informed resettlement practices. These are approaches that are layered, with early stages focusing more directly on basic routines and physical safety. These approaches involve equipping key staff with knowledge about trauma and its effects and supporting them in their work with potentially traumatised young people.

While the key aim of the criminal justice system is to reduce or prevent offending, trauma-informed resettlement practice requires us also to consider the young person’s safety – both from others who may seek to victimise them, but also from the frustration, despair and anger that they may feel at themselves. Understanding the impact of trauma upon young offenders leads to more effective interventions, and helping young people to build their personal resilience and social support systems should form an important part of all resettlement work.

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