23 October 2023

How WithYou is helping reroute young people away from the criminal justice system

Research@2X (2)
“At the end of the day, we will do anything we can to not get someone in the criminal justice system … because it just doesn’t work, does it? It just doesn’t work.” (Police Officer involved in the Re-Frame programme)

Adolescence is a pivotal stage of life, and a time where risk-taking behaviours are natural, important, and mostly harmless. However, negative actions and choices during this time can sometimes profoundly impact long-term wellbeing, opportunities, and outcomes. This is especially true for young people who become involved with the criminal justice system. Many of these young people have faced drug dependencies and mental health issues, which can stem from or be exacerbated by neglect, abuse, or school exclusion. Being arrested can mark the start of a ‘revolving door’ of short sentencing and low-level offending, with a sense that the young person’s chances of a fulfilled adult life are over before they’ve really begun.

Diversion schemes can play a crucial role in breaking this cycle and this blog explores the potential of our Re-Frame programme, following its recent pilot evaluation.

The Re-Frame programme

Re-Frame is a diversion programme designed for 10 to 17-year-olds arrested and found in possession of class B or C controlled drugs. The programme is delivered by qualified youth substance misuse workers from With You, and aims to reduce drug use and offending behaviour among young people.

The programme consists of two sessions, either in-person or online. In the first session, the WithYou practitioner uses the ‘Drug Grid’, an exercise which aims to dispel myths and provide information on the effects of different drugs. The young people are given time to reflect on how their actions have affected their lives, families, and wider community. The practitioner also aids a critical reflection on the young person’s experience of being arrested. During the second session, the ‘Drug Triangle’ exercise is employed to help the young people explore the substance, mindset, and setting that led them to this situation. Upon successful completion of the Re-Frame programme, the young person will face no formal police charge.

The Youth Endowment Fund (YEF) recently funded a pilot evaluation to assess the program’s potential impact, examining factors such as eligibility, participation rates, cost, and the perspectives of both participants and stakeholders. The evaluation was carried out by researchers from Kent University.

The purpose of the pilot

During the pilot evaluation from February to December 2022, the program’s impact was assessed in the Kent, Cornwall, and Sefton police force areas. The pilot evaluation used an online survey delivered before and six months after half the 76 participants were allocated at random to either receive the Re-Frame intervention or business as usual. Survey questions featured a range of outcome measures, including the Self-Report Delinquency Scale, and a number of measures assessing mental health, well-being, emotional regulation, and behaviour.

The overarching goal of the pilot was to assess whether the program was ready to proceed to a larger randomised controlled trial (RCT), considered the ‘gold standard’ in research. RCTs ensure that the comparison groups are similar at the outset. This means researchers and policy-makers can confidently attribute changes in outcomes, such as reoffending rates, to the specific intervention being tested. This level of evidence is extremely helpful for understanding the true impact of a policy or program.

RCTs also help policy-makers identify cost-effective interventions, and promote accountability and transparency in the decision-making process. The results of trials can be shared with the public and stakeholders to show that decisions are being based on evidence, rather than ideology. This is especially important for building public trust in the criminal justice system, where everyone needs to believe the system is fair and effective.

Key findings

Young people reported very positive experiences of the Re-Frame programme, highlighting good relationships with their Re-Frame practitioners. They reported finding the sessions engaging and informative:

“We talked about how much time you can get in prison for, you know, getting caught by the police with the drugs on you … if you were to like sell them and how many years you’d get for it. So, like, I’m aware of the consequences if I was to get caught.” (Young Person 4)

All of the police officers involved in the programme also spoke favourably about the experience, believing it could impact, or already had impacted, participants’ offending.

“It’s a reward, isn’t it? It makes you feel like you’ve achieved something for that youth … if it’s worked and they haven’t come back again, then has it worked? Has it changed for them? Hopefully it does … every kid needs a chance.” (Police Officer involved in the Re-Frame programme)

The table below summarises the pilot’s findings against the success criteria.

Challenges identified

Stakeholders across the programme emphasised the importance of timely delivery. To minimise uncertainty for the young people involved, the pilot recommends that the police communicate with young people if there has been a delay in the referral process.

“I know from speaking with young people … one of the things that makes diversion effective is if it can be as close as possible to the original offence or the incident … conversations around the incident with the young person … can feel like it happened a lifetime ago.” (ReFrame Worker 1)

Relatedly, the pilot highlighted the importance of keeping Re-Frame and youth diversion on the priority list among police forces. The pilot recommends the police forces continue to make sure they are promoting Re-Frame among their colleagues and networks. As well as helping with prompt delivery of the programme, this will ensure a steady flow of referrals to the programme, which is essential for measuring its effectiveness over time. The Re-Frame team will continue to work with the police to increase the visibility of Re-Frame with local policing teams.

Next steps

The pilot study concluded that the Re-Frame programme is ready to proceed to a larger RCT with minimal modifications. As described above, the results of this trial will be invaluable in establishing whether a diversion scheme such as Re-Frame is effective. This comes at a crucial time for securing further funding. We have seen momentum to expand the use of diversionary schemes build over the last couple of years, particularly since Dame Carol Black’s review of drugs. As we approach the two year anniversary of this seminal review and preparations begin for next year’s general election, there are further opportunities for reform to a system which has historically let down young people. By diverting young people away from the criminal justice system, we can improve outcomes for both them and their community.

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