Lewisham children in custody at lowest ever level

A room at Feltham Young Offenders Institution. Pic: Marcin Mazur

Only four Lewisham children were sentenced to youth custody in 2022, compared to 40 in 2016, as a consequence of the ‘Youth Justice Plan’ by Lewisham’s Youth Justice Service, councillors have been told.

Labour Councillor Chris Barnham, cabinet member for children and young people, told a meeting of Lewisham council: “The number of children entering the criminal justice system for the first time has continued to fall and is below comparable London boroughs and reoffending is falling year on year.” 

The YJS is a council programme which works with the community and local agencies such as the Police and schools to help keep young people aged 10-17 out of trouble. This year it won the award for ‘Innovation in Building Diversity and Inclusion’ at the Municipal Journal local government national achievement awards. 

To reduce the number of children in custody, the Youth Justice Service applied a “trauma informed, anti-racist and restorative approach” or ‘TIARRA’. 

Keith Cohen, head of Youth Justice Service, accepting the award at the ceremony in June. Pic: MJ Awards

Barnham said that ‘trauma informed’ means: “Focusing on causes and prevention, rather than just reacting to incidents when they happen.” Or as is explained in the report: “[Children’s] offending behaviours often mask underlying vulnerabilities: from early childhood trauma and neglect to school exclusion, poor mental health and growing up in poverty.” 

An anti-racist approach is especially relevant for Lewisham, since 45% of the under 18 population are black or mixed ethnicity and are disproportionally represented when looking at youth sentencing data. 

In a statement, the YJS said: “We have recognised that it is not enough to say we are not racist and that we needed to explicitly state and show how we are actively anti-racist. […] Therefore we have pioneered […] an anti-racist strategy […] for racial equity and to improve outcomes for black and mixed heritage children.” 

A court can give a child a custodial sentence if the offence is so serious that they cannot justify a fine or a community sentence. The report defines ‘children’ as all individuals aged 17 or younger. 

One of the Youth Justice Plan’s guiding principles is ‘child first, offender second’, a very important approach, according to Barnham: “Some children and young people get into awful situations and I think those of us who have had young children know that they can make bad decisions, but they remain children. And we should always hold on to that and keep that in mind in our decision making.” 

Keith Cohen, Head of the YJS told councillors the three year plan has actually been over ten years in the making: “We’re starting to see some of the results for that, but for the next few years we want to see even better results, because [of ] that harmful effect of children going into custody and getting engrained in the youth justice system.” 

Mayor Damien Egan commended the plan: “The YJS is such an important one and its an area where we can really change lives and turn lives around. [They] have worked so hard to turn things around for our young people […] so thank you for that continued ambition to work to improve because its the most wonderful turnaround of the service but of those young lives as well.” 

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