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Exploring the production and utilisation of pre-sentence reports (PSRs) in the youth justice system

Summary

This research project investigated the use and quality of pre-sentence reports (PSRs) in the youth justice system. The research also explored whether PSRs might contribute to racial disparity in sentencing decisions as identified by previous YJB-funded research. PSRs bring together important information about the child to help inform the court’s sentencing decision.

Description

The research was conducted by Ipsos, an independent research company in collaboration with Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU), funded by the Youth Justice Board (YJB).

The authors analysed a sample of 95 PSRs from five Youth Justice Services (YJSs) in England, assessing their quality and language. They also conducted interviews in England and Wales with youth justice case managers and service managers, defence lawyers, judges, and magistrates.

Key findings

  • Purpose: The findings suggest that PSRs generally serve a dual purpose: providing background information on the child and recommending a sentence. However, there’s sometimes tension between advocating for the child and presenting a balanced picture for sentencing.
  • Quality: PSRs were generally of good quality – i.e. they broadly reflected the requirements of the YJB Guidance on writing PSRs. Sentencers substantiated this finding, reflecting that the quality of children’s PSRs was typically good in their experience, and of better quality than adult PSRs.
  • The authors found no differences in quality between PSRs for Black children compared to White children. However, certain sections – ‘Assessment of Child’ and ‘Conclusions’ – were often weaker overall, but this was the case for all children.
  • Language used: The research examined the language used in a sub-sample of PSRs and found differences between PSRs for Black and White children.
    • Differences in number of quotations included from the child themselves (more common for White children) and from victims/witnesses (more common for Black children).
    • Black children’s PSRs were more likely to refer to co-defendants, while White children’s PSRs referred more frequently to co-accused. Additionally, Black children’s PSRs more frequently referred to negative peer influences.
    • It is important to note that these differences were identified in the sample, but due to the small number of PSRs reviewed these findings are not statistically significant meaning we do not know whether we’d find these same differences if we looked at more PSRs. However, they do indicate that further research might be useful.
  • The research also found that it can be difficult for children and their families to understand the language and terminology used in PSRs, making it difficult for them to engage with the content of the report.
  • Challenges: PSR writers reported challenges in gathering information from schools and colleges, which sometimes resulted in incomplete or inaccurate information in the reports.
  • Sentencers also felt the sentencing proposals included in the report may not always align with what’s realistically available in the community. There can also be tension between advocating for the child and maintaining objectivity.
  • Limitations: While these findings are an important step in understanding the role and use of PSRs in youth court, the research findings are based on a reasonably small overall sample. Therefore, many of the findings warrant further research to confirm their relevance to all youth justice service.

Recommendations and next steps

The authors recommend reviewing the PSR guidance issued by the YJB, reviewing best practice in drafting PSRs and wider decision-making, and adapting the guidance accordingly.

  • Updates to the case management guidance: The YJB provide guidance on case management and the production of PSRs. National guidance was issued in 2019 and updated more recently in 2022. The YJB will draw on the more detailed findings and recommendations to make further updates to the guidance as part of the regular updates in the near future.
  • Wider work on courts and assessments: In 2023, all YJSs submitted a self-assessment of their work in court as part of the Standards for Children audit. Alongside an assessment of their court strategy, this audit focussed on the quality of their assessments, including PSRs. The outcomes from this audit will be used alongside the findings of this research to provide best practice on writing and utilising PSRs to the sector.

At the YJB, we remain determined to change the system, but we cannot change it alone. Our work with partners in the courts and youth justice services are important to us making any progress in this area.

Pre-sentence reports in the youth justice system – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

Contact

Name: Jordan Rehill
Email:jordan.rehill@yjb.gov.uk