Marginalised yet vulnerable: The impact of COVID-19 on young people in the youth justice system


by Hannah Smithson, Professor of Criminology and Youth Justice within the Manchester Centre for Youth Studies at Manchester Metropolitan University and Chair of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice, and Paul Axon, Director Targeted Services, Positive Steps, Oldham.

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has raised many societal challenges that would have been unimaginable a short time ago.

While the crisis has been referred to in the media as a ‘leveller’, the reality is that social inequality has been exacerbated and amplified by the pandemic and will have long lasting implications for the most vulnerable in society, including young people in youth justice systems.

These young people are some of the most marginalised and vulnerable in society. For instance, we know many have experienced trauma, substance misuse, and the care system, have mental health problems, and been excluded from school.

All too often, these young people are deemed to have forfeited their right to political and public empathy. However, their health and safety should be of paramount importance at this time.


Increase risk of harm

The criminal justice system is facing a strange hiatus; on one hand criminal trials have been delayed, arrests are down and prisons are participating in ‘early release schemes’, while on the other existing issues of poverty, mental health, domestic abuse and school engagement are areas of acute risk for young people.

The system is holding a collective deep breath hoping for the best, while knowing that the worst is likely still to emerge.

The current lockdown restrictions are likely to increase risk of harm to young people within the home including exposure to neglect and domestic and inter-familial abuse.

The heightened risks within the home could lead to non-compliance with social distancing rules, which in turn could lead to criminalisation through lack of adherence to lockdown measures.

It is an interesting observation that as of yet, the government has not directed specific communications at children about the importance of adhering to social distancing and isolation measures.

The need to use police powers to ensure compliance with social distancing policies to curb the spread of COVID-19 at this time of huge strain is contentious, and there have been contrasting police responses to criminality linked to COVID-19 restrictions.

The National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) guidance is a helpful and psychologically informed response that seeks to prevent criminalisation.

The importance of keeping young people out of the criminal justice system cannot be underestimated, yet it remains the case that young people are most likely to fall foul of restrictions on group activities.


The Youth Justice System

The Youth Justice System has a crucial role to play at this time and it needs the guidance, support and resources to continue to run a service for young people.

Youth Offending Teams are proactively trying to assess and manage safeguarding and risks for young people in an entirely new environment, while in some instances, losing staff through redeployment to other priority areas of service (e.g. child protection, children’s homes, secure children’s homes).

Some teams have reported that young people under their supervision – those living independently –are struggling to look after themselves, particularly in terms of not having enough food.

The context of COVID-19 has removed some potential risks to young people. For example a large category of acquisitive crimes has rapidly decreased due to people staying in homes, and peer-led offences are similarly affected, with those being exploited and recruited through street activities protected by the new environment.

However, other threats become more acute.

The online world becomes an even richer target of exploitation; domestic abuse and violence risks are accentuated; and we know that the importation of drug supply continues unabated, which must find a market and people to move supply.

The youth justice sector has already made great strides in adapting to the challenges faced. Online platforms have been set up, networks of intelligence with partner organisations quickly developed and contingency planning established.

On the ground, many examples of innovation highlight the sector’s willingness to engage proactively with young people to prevent further harm; sessions relating to online exploitation have been delivered through video conference platforms, and young people have been completing online sessions on the impact of crime on victims. However, none of this replaces the need for direct contact to adequately safeguard young people, particularly those who face risks in the home.

Post-COVID, the criminal justice system will have to adapt following a period of delay and standstill. At present, developing a clear understanding of the impact is difficult and contingent on how well society as a whole, and the agencies and organisations that support these young people can adapt to their needs once restrictions begin to be lifted.

Youth Justice Services are often the ‘eyes and ears’ supporting the most maligned yet vulnerable communities. The challenge of continuing to offer services that engage and support these groups, while planning for a ‘post COVID’ world nobody is sure of yet will test the sector to the full.