Analysing the Drivers of Trends in First Time Entrants (FTEs) to the Youth Justice System

Flickr/Charbel Akhras [CC-BY-ND-2.0]

The number of youths from England and Wales first entering the criminal justice system changed significantly between 2003 and 2015, first increasing and then, after 2008, decreasing.

Although it is difficult to substantiate due to lack of data, the introduction in 2002 of new government policies and stricter policing practices in England and Wales, and subsequent changes to these policies and practices in 2008, were likely to be the main causes of changes.

However, an overall reduction in youth crime, as well as longer term trends which have seen reductions in the risk factors associated with youth offending behaviour, may also have played a role.

Background

During the 12 years from 2003 to 2015, there were substantial variations in the number of youths in England and Wales who were first time entrants (FTEs) in the criminal justice system. The number of youth FTEs – young people between the age of 10 and 17 who receive their first reprimand, warning, caution or conviction – increased rapidly from 2003/04 and peaked in 2006/07 at 110,784.

However, this rise was followed by substantial year-on-year falls in England and Wales. By 2014/15 there were 20,544 FTEs in the criminal justice system – around 80 per cent fewer compared to the peak in 2007. Several possible factors (or combinations of factors) could account for these variations, from changes in policing and prosecution practices to changing social and economic conditions.

Goals

Commissioned by the Ministry of Justice, RAND Europe conducted research to gain a better understanding of the societal, policy or practice drivers associated with the changes in the number of FTEs. The study also aimed to explore whether the ‘case mix’ of FTEs changed over time and how, and what the proven reoffending outcomes of FTEs were during the time period from 2003 to 2015.

Methodology

Researchers undertook a secondary analysis of administrative data held on the Police National Computer (PNC) relating to all FTEs between 2003/04 and 2012/13. Alongside, they conducted an analysis of information on arrests and sentencing. To complement, they reviewed published literature and policy documents relevant to FTEs.

Findings

  • Overall, the introduction of and subsequent changes in government policies and policing practices were likely to be the main causes of changes in the number of FTEs between 2003/04 and 2012/13. It is not possible to substantiate the extent to which these policy introductions and changes had an impact on the numbers of FTEs, but they broadly correspond with observed changes in the number of young people arrested and in the number of FTEs.
  • Changes in police activities, firstly in response to government targets, were an important contributor to the increase in the number of FTEs between 2003/04 and 2006/07. In 2002 a target was introduced to increase the number of Offences Brought to Justice (OBTJ) and reduce the gap between the numbers of crimes recorded by the police and those for which a perpetrator is identified. There is some evidence that, in order to meet this target, the police focused their attention on young people who had committed non-serious offences, as they can be easier than adults to apprehend. Therefore, this may have resulted in greater numbers of young people who had committed low-level offences, including FTEs, being brought into the youth justice system.
  • In April 2008, the OBTJ target was revised to focus on more serious offences. These types of crimes are less likely to be committed by young people than adults. This policy change may have led to a change in police practice, which in turn could have contributed to the substantial falls in FTEs. However, it was observed that police forces may have already begun to change their practices prior to the change in the OBTJ target – in effect meaning that the policy followed the practice.
  • In addition, a number of policing and criminal justice policies and practices were implemented during 2008 and 2009, some of which were introduced in response to a new government policy on youth offending. Many of these initiatives were intended to increase the discretion of the police to divert young people who had committed a low-level crime away from the formal youth justice system. We cannot rule out that these changes may have contributed to the overall changes observed, but it was not possible to evidence the specific contribution they may have made.
  • However, it is possible that the falls in FTEs from 2007 may have been assisted, to some extent, by an overall reduction in youth crime, as well as longer term trends which have seen reductions in the risk factors associated with youth offending behaviour.
  • The characteristics of FTEs changed over time in a way that was consistent with increasing numbers of young people who commit first time low-level offences (e.g. 10 to 14 year-olds, and females) being diverted away from the formal youth justice system. Compared to those entering the system in 2003/04, FTEs in 2012/13 were, on average:
    • More likely to be older (aged 15 to 17 years);
    • Less likely to be female;
    • Less likely to be described as ‘white’; and
    • More likely to have committed a more serious offence.
  • On average, when looking at the data over the study period, the majority (79 per cent) of FTEs did not commit further proven offences within one year of their FTE offence.