Coronavirus has rampaged across our world over the last 18 months and more. It has had an impact on every aspect of our lives.
Inevitably, its impact on the children that go through our Youth Justice system- children that are often already disadvantaged in any event- has been sizeable.
A study published this month has detailed the pandemic’s significant effects on the system in some detail.
The report was the result of a partnership between the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University and the Alliance for Youth Justice.
The report breaks down the examination of these issues into the effect on children in the community and children in the court system.
Their findings are wide ranging, but can be summarised as follows:
Children in the community
The impact of the virus on children in the community has, for the most part, been pretty well documented in the media.
The previously mentioned pre-existing vulnerabilities and disadvantage have been exacerbated- the report describes the impact of the pandemic as ‘devastating’.
There has been a huge erosion of support in areas including education, social care and mental health. The school closure lead to the lack of visibility of children who might usually be at school and has opened them to exploitation and abuse. The message ‘stay at home’ for some children was a dangerous one.
The existing disparity in the provision of education across society has only been widened, and racial inequality has also been exacerbated by the disproportionate effect of the virus on ethnic communities both in terms of health outcomes and broader issues.
The disparity in the availability of basis IT equipment to engage in education was highlighted in the media and campaigns led by, amongst others, rugby player Maro Itoje focused on the provision of equipment for the more vulnerable children.
Policing the pandemic
The Coronavirus Act 2020 resulted in the police adopting the 4 E’s approach- engage, explain, encourage before enforcing the law. It was hoped that children would only be arrested in exceptional circumstances.
There is no doubt that the move to remote engagement in police interviews did not aid communication with children and their legal representatives.
Some criticism has been levied at the Police disproportionately targeting racial groups during this period of time.
Children subject to YOT (Youth Offender Team) supervision:
The digital divide for disadvantaged children, mentioned previously, made remote contact between children and their caseworkers often impossible.
YOT workers saw the most acute children face to face during the lockdown period, although most supervision was conducted remotely (subject to the digital issues) .
General access to other support networks e.g. social care, mental health also impacted on the management of Youth Rehabilitation Orders and other supervision.
Children in the Court system
As the country entered lockdown in March 2020, Courts could no longer operate in their normal way and Courts listed priority matters only, adjourning many cases.
The Government did not give any guidance in relation to children in Court.
The inevitable delays were particularly relevant to those who had committed offences whilst they were children but who were now approaching 18 and their cases had not been dealt with. The relevance is that children are sentenced in a different regime than that of adults.
The increase in the use of virtual participation in Court proceedings during Covid inevitably resulted in difficulties with communication, understanding and participation of children in Court proceedings.
Questions are raised in the study asked whether children were less likely to be granted bail or be sentenced less favorably during a remote hearing than if all parties had been physically present.
The study concludes that there is not enough information to evaluate that yet.
What about children in custody during this time?
The Children’s Commissioner , amongst others, raised concerns about children being incarcerated (in Youth Offender Institutions, Secure Training Centres or Children’s Homes) at this time and described conditions as ‘draconian’.
This Public Health Emergency caused a very temporary reduction in incarcerated children, but by June 2020 it was back up to pre Covid rates.
In particular concerns about the conditions were the extremely limited provision of any education, restrictive regimes and no special provision during the pandemic for incarcerated children.
Children in custody were not treated as vulnerable and were provided no face to face education.
Children who often had mental health issues before Covid , once incarcerated during Covid, were particularly affected due to the lack of access to any professional help.
Conditions within institutions were not helped by staff shortages caused by the pandemic and self-isolating issues
During Covid, social visits were suspended, children reported struggling without familial contact.
Institutions were too slow to introduce video visits and again the digital divide meant that the introduction of ‘Purple Visits’ were of no help to many families without suitable devices, causing further disadvantage for the children and their families.
Of course the lack of physical visits also cut these children off from their lawyers, social workers, YOT workers etc too.
The Ministry of Justice announced in March 2020 that it was working to ensure the early release of children from custody, chiefly because of Covid outbreaks within the institutions.
However, only 10 children were in fact deemed eligible under the Government’s criteria and in fact none were actually released the study ascertained.
In summary, even at this stage, the study concludes that the impact of Covid-19 on children in the Justice system has been devastating and long term effects will remain to be seen.
If you are under 18 years of age and would like advice or representation for a criminal matter please contact our specialist Youth Justice Team of expert solicitors on 0808 115 3177 or request a call back online.