Children first, offenders second

Professor Kevin Haines and Dr Stephen Case of the Centre for Criminal Justice and Criminology at Swansea University write about youth justice approach in Wales that treats young people in conflict with the law as children first, offenders second.

By: 
Professor Kevin Haines and Dr Stephen Case
Date: 
Thursday, 14 November, 2013

Recent years have witnessed a resurgence of interest in ‘diversion’ as a measure deployed, typically for younger or ‘first time offenders’, as an alternative to formal prosecution through the courts. Much of this diversion, however, has involved diverting young people to ‘alternatives’ that remain in the Youth Justice System and/or that retain the flavour of criminal justice responses (focusing on the offence or the victim of the offence and not on the child). Whilst these various diversionary measures are often couched in a positive rhetoric (that they are more appropriate – and possibly effective – measures to be applied to children), in practice they reinforce an offence and offender-based approach to interventions in the lives of children in conflict with the Law. Radical thinking and practice in Wales is, however, taking a different direction.

Although youth justice is not an area of policy devolved to the Welsh Government, many of those agencies and staff employed within the Youth Justice System operate within areas of devolved competence. This, coupled with a mind-set that policy in Wales should reflect, increasingly, Welsh interests, culture and needs, has created the space within existing legislation for, inter alia, a process termed the ‘Dragonisation of Youth Justice’. Thus, in contrast with offence and offender-based policy and practice, official youth justice policy in Wales states that our approach to children in conflict with the Law is based on the principle of ‘children first, offenders second’.

Developed initially in Swansea but spreading to other areas across Wales, the Bureau approach is one example of ‘children first, offenders second’ in practice. The Bureau is designed principally to do two things:

  1. To deliver genuine diversion from the Youth Justice System. Children diverted through the Bureau do not attract any formal charge or criminal record.
  2. To respond primarily to the child (not the offence, or the child as an offender). The Bureau de-couples the interests and needs of the victim from those of the child, focuses on the role of parents and aims to offer a range of interventions that promote positive outcomes for the child.

Our own research into the operation of the Bureau in Swansea showed that:

  • The Bureau was becoming an increasingly effective method of diverting children out of the Youth Justice System from its introduction in 2008/9. In 2011/12 64% of children (n = 152) who were potential entrants into the formal system received a ‘non-criminal disposal’ from the Bureau.
  • Reconvictions following the Bureau and ‘non-criminal disposal’ were lower (at 11%) than reprimands (21%), Final Warnings (27%) and Prosecution/Referral Orders (15%).

The Bureau shows evidence of becoming a promising approach to children in conflict with the Law. Rather than operating as a mechanism of diversion, the Bureau is increasingly establishing itself across Wales as a genuine alternative to the Youth Justice System based on the principle of ‘children first’. As a senior Police Officer put it:

'If we believe in children, we shouldn’t criminalise them. Instead, we should try to support them, invest in them and see them as our future. The Bureau gives us a chance to do that.'