The Youth Justice Board (YJB) was established in 1998 as a central part of the Labour government's radical programme of youth justice reform. Yet while it has had a central role in directing the culture, organisation and activities of youth justice in England and Wales, it is poorly understood. As its future hangs in the balance, this paper seeks to draw on a unique empirical study of the operation of the YJB to explore what it is, what it does and why it is so difficult to describe.
The research involved 18 months' ethnographic fieldwork. For one calendar year (2006‐2007), research focused on the internal operation of the YJB including observations of meetings, depth interviews and documentary analysis. A second strand of research explored the regional operation of the YJB. This involved observations of regional monitors and assessment processes and interviews and focus groups with Youth Offending Teams staff.
The research shows that the YJB is an inherently ambiguous organisation. This ambiguity has made it simultaneously highly insecure and extremely productive, enabling it to extend its influence and activities beyond those initially envisaged in New Labour's reforms. However, the difficulty in defining the YJB also suggests the full effect of its activities will only become clear once it has gone.
While there has been much academic interest in the YJB, this research is the only empirical study of it. It, therefore gives a unique insight into the organisation and culture of the English and Welsh youth justice system.
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