Young offenders

Young offenders

One large scale survey found that 95% of people in Young Offender Institutions (YOI) have a mental health condition, and 80% had multiple mental health conditions (Lader et al., 2003).

Figure 26: The prevalence of the following mental health issues amongst young men and women who had received sentences. Data source: (Lader et al., 2003)

There is a very high prevalence of self-harm within youth custody, with an average of 18.6 self-harm incidents occurring per 100 children and young adults in custody each month in 2020/21 (Youth Justice Board & Ministry of Justice, 2022). The average monthly rate of self-harm incidents is substantially greater amongst girls (197.0 per 100 children per month) than boys (13.1 per 100 children per month).

Figure 27: Average monthly rate of self-harm incidents per 100 children and young adults in custody by demographic characteristics, youth secure estate in England and Wales, years ending March 2016 to 2021. Source: Youth Justice Board

The Victims, Suspects and Offenders Needs Assessment 2019/20 (Cambridgeshire County Council, 2020) explored local levels of mental health need:

  • 72% of the Youth Offending Service cohort were identified as having mental health needs.
  • This report also highlighted that most individuals within the criminal justice system had complex and multiple needs, with 88% of first-time entrants to the Youth Offending Service having 5+ needs.

Figure 28: The top concerns and needs for the Cambridge Youth Offender Service cohort in 2019. Data source: (Cambridgeshire County Council, 2020)

  • Education, training & employment, mental health and substance use were also highlighted as ‘substantial concerns’ within the criminal justice system.

Local population

Compared to Cambridgeshire, in Peterborough there is (Youth Justice Board, 2021):

  • Almost 3 times the rate of offences committed by children and young people.
  • Over 2 times the rate of cautions and court sentences given to children and young people.
  • Over 2 times the rate of children and young people cautioned or sentenced.

Table 11: Rate of youth offences, cautions and sentences in C & P from March 2020 to March 2021. Data source: (Youth Justice Board, 2021)

The national and local rate of children and young people entering the youth justice system has declined over the past 8 years. However, for the past 2 years, the rate of children entering the youth justice system has been above the national average in Peterborough, and below the national average in Cambridgeshire.

Figure 24: Children and young people aged 10 to 17 years cautioned or sentenced, rate per 1,000 population. Data source: Fingertips

The rate of children (10- to 17-year-olds) entering the youth justice system for the first time is higher than the national average in Peterborough and lower than the national average in Cambridgeshire.

Figure 25: Children and Young people aged 10 to 17 years receiving their first reprimand, warning or conviction per 100,000 population. Data source: Fingertips

Risk factors for poor mental health 

Young people entering Young Offender Institutions (YOI) are likely to have multiple risk factors for poor mental health, and in particular, traumatic experiences from early childhood. This includes experiences of abuse, family dysfunction, domestic abuse, and poverty (Roe, 2022). Young people who have experienced 4+ adverse childhood experiences are 7 times as likely to enter the youth justice system (Commission on Young Lives, 2022).

Figure 29: Vulnerabilities of people in YOI. Source: YoungMinds

  • Young women (17- to 25-year-olds) in contact with the criminal justice system often have complex and overlapping needs (Agenda, 2022):
    • Between 75 to 90% of young women in contact with the criminal justice system have experienced abuse from a family member or trusted figure.
    • Those with experience of being in care have often been placed in inappropriate accommodation, in which they were at increased risk of sexual and criminal exploitation.
  • There are significant inequalities in the youth criminal justice system:
    • Children from Black, Asian and mixed ethnic backgrounds make up half of those in the youth justice secure estate (YOI, secure children’s homes and secure training centres) (Roe, 2022).
    • Compared to White children, Black children are (Commission on Young Lives, 2022):
      • 5 times more likely to be subject to stop and search.
      • 4 times more likely to be arrested.
      • Over 3 times more likely to receive a caution or sentence.
    • Young people aged between 16 and 17 living in children’s homes are 15 times more likely to be criminalised than their peers (Agenda, 2022). In March 2020, 57% of children in custody had either been in care or were currently in care (Commission on Young Lives, 2022).
    • 23 to 32% of young people in custody have a learning disability, compared to 2 to 4% of the general population (N. Hughes & Williams, 2012).
Young people at risk of criminal exploitation

Young people who are both victims of crime, and carry out offences, are likely to be highly vulnerable. This group may end up ‘bouncing around systems’ instead of receiving appropriate or effective support.

Summary: Hidden in Plain Sight: A national plan of action to support vulnerable teenagers to succeed and to protect them from adversity, exploitation, and harm (Commission on Young Lives, 2022)

  • Vulnerable young people – such as those who are in care, missing from home, socially isolated, or struggling with their mental health – can be at risk of criminal exploitation.
  • Many people in the youth justice system are victims of crimes. For example, a review of the experiences of boys from Black and mixed ethnic backgrounds in the criminal justice system found that:
    • Almost 1 in 3 had been victims of criminal exploitation.
    • A high proportion had experienced multiple adverse childhood experiences.
    • Many had been exposed to poverty, violence and family breakdown.
  • In 2019, the Children’s Commissioners estimated that 2.3 million children are at in vulnerable households, over a third (36%) of whom are not know to, or receiving support from, any services.
    • These children are more likely to be growing up in poverty and living in highly deprived areas; and are disproportionately from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds.


Accessible and effective mental healthcare is an essential to ensuring young people in contact with the criminal justice system can rebuild their lives (23). However, national research has highlighted that many people in prison face substantial barriers to accessing mental healthcare, which can perpetuate the cycle between mental health and the criminal justice system.

  • National data shows that relatively few (20%) first-time youth offenders access mental health services, despite 3 in 4 meeting the clinical threshold for a mood, anxiety or behavioural disorder [(Burke et al., 2015),(Justice Committee, 2021)].
  • Young people in YOI who are from ethnic minority backgrounds are much less likely to have mental problems recorded than White people, suggesting their needs go recognised (Lammy, 2017).


  • Young people who have spent time in the youth offending system report that:
    • Mental health services in prisons are inadequate, with the lack of support and understanding from staff sometimes leading to feelings of anger and violence (Leaders Unlocked, 2022).
    • Waiting lists for mental health support are too long, which means that some young people self-medicate with drugs and alcohol (Campbell & Abbott, 2013).
  • Young women (17- to 25-year-olds) in contact with the criminal justice system report that being arrested and spending time in prison can be re-traumatising, particularly for those with past experiences of violence and abuse (Agenda, 2022).


More work needs to be done on the mental health outcomes of young people in contact with the criminal justice system, at both a local and national level.

Additional resources


Full list of references is included at the end of this chapter.