The Youth Justice System (YJS) of England and Wales is not fit for purpose. It is about time that the YJS started to treat children who offend in ways that befit their status as children under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The YJS should put children first, not deal with individuals up to the age of 18 as if they are ‘offenders’ or mini-adults within a mini-adult Criminal Justice System.
We propose an alternative model of positive youth justice that we call Children First, Offenders Second (CFOS). A CFOS approach would radically overhaul the outdated and adult centric YJS that we now have in a number of progressive and principled ways (Haines and Case 2015). Let’s clarify exactly what we believe that a CFOS model is and what it most definitely is not.
Child-friendly and child-appropriate
Children are young, immature and vulnerable. Consequently, they require protection and support from adults, not unfair comparison to adults or treatment as if they were adults. Youth justice services and relationships should be designed and delivered (by adults) in supportive and appropriate, child-sensitive ways if they are to be effective. This is common sense.
We must prioritise children’s engagement over their enforced compliance, their participation over prescription and instruction, their capacities and strengths over their deficits and differences to adults (Case and Haines, in press).
Child-friendly and child-appropriate youth justice services are, by design, children first.
Official youth justice responses, whether they are guided by punishment, justice or welfare, can have damaging effects on their recipients, typically those children who are least capable of resisting, negotiating and utilising these responses. Diversion from formal processes is child-friendly/appropriate because it enables services to prioritise the promotion of positive behaviours, support, information and guidance (the cornerstone of Welsh social policy for children). This is far more easy to achieve through diversion than through the use of formalised, offence-focused and punishment-led responses (that are interventionist and harmful) or welfare approaches wedded to treatment and retrospectively compensating for individual deficits and unmet needs.
Diversion from the welfare-justice excesses of the YJS is children first.
Prevention is better than cure. Promotion is better than prevention (Case and Haines, in press). Promoting positive behaviour by children, promoting positive outcomes for children, and promoting children’s access to their universal entitlements to services, support and guidance has the potential to be far more sustainable and effective than formalised prevention. This is less effective as it can exclude and stigmatise due to the focus on reducing negative aspects such as individualised risk factor and future offending behaviour.
Promoting children’s voices and input in the design and implementation of practice concurrently promotes their engagement with practice and interventions and promotes positive views of these children amongst practitioners and amongst the children themselves.
Promotional practice is children first.
Children have capacities, strengths and valuable perspectives that must be embraced by youth justice services. However, children are also inherently more vulnerable and less powerful than adults. It makes no sense to acknowledge that children need protection and support from adults, and then to give these same children full responsibility for engaging with adult-controlled support services.
If we expect children to participate, to engage, to thrive through exposure to youth justice services, then it is adults who must be responsible for facilitating children’s access to these services and their participation in them. Adults must also be made responsible for treating children legitimately – in ways that the child perceives as moral, just and fair.
Children’s perceptions of the legitimacy of youth justice services and relationships increase their likelihood of engaging with services and with adult practitioners (Haines and Case 2015), thus increasing the likelihood that these services will be effective.
Responsibilising adults puts children first.
Youth justice services and programmes should be designed and delivered by children and practitioners working in partnership. Producing and reflecting on evidence of service effectiveness should be a priority for these partnerships, rather than choosing and implementing services and programmes uncritically based on adult preferences, organisational bias or political expedience.
The YJS must avoid its current programme fetishism – privileging psychological, pseudo-scientific, offence-focused work packages that can be lifted ‘off the shelf’ and delivered to children. Programme fetishism fosters prescriptive, dehumanising and desocialising practice that runs counter to the child-friendly, diversionary, promotional and engaging ethos of CFOS positive youth justice.
Basing youth justice responses on evidence generated through partnership between service users and practitioners is children first.
Children First, Offenders Second: A philosophy of practice
CFOS positive youth justice provides youth justice practitioners with a philosophy for their practice – a way of shaping and guiding practice (Haines and Case 2015). CFOS enables staff to work in evidenced partnership with children to understand what they do, how they do it, why they do it in certain ways, how to measure whether their practice is effective and how practice can be improved. CFOS is a touchstone, an overarching objective, an ethos. It is principled, progressive, promotional and practical – all of the things that the current YJS is not.
It is children first.
Case, S.P. and Haines, K. R. (in press) Children First, Offenders Second Positive Promotion: Reframing the Prevention Debate. Youth Justice Journal.
Haines, K.R. and Case, S.P. (2015) Positive Youth Justice: Children First, Offenders Second. Bristol: Policy Press.