How to keep children out of the criminal justice system

Roger Grimshaw
Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Roger Grimshaw reports on a recent workshop looking to prioritise children’s needs

I was pleased to be invited to speak at a workshop with exactly that hopeful title, organised by Haringey Council on 11 September.

Louise King, Director of the Children’s Rights Alliance for England (Just for Kids Law), hit the right note at the outset by explaining how the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child provided a principled foundation for making sure that children in trouble with the law were dealt with outside a criminal justice setting.

Gang databases

My remarks began with reflections on the minimum age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales, which, at ten years, is low by comparison with European norms, and contrasts with the recent lifting of the age in Scotland to 12 years. Police practice around ‘gangs’ has given rise to concerns about the assumption that all ages can be recruited into membership; the growth of databases to keep track of ‘gangs’ has been the target of justified criticism, given the disproportionate number of BAME individuals listed.

In place of these factors, all leading to criminalisation, an understanding of young people’s vulnerability gives rise to a much clearer and more humane appreciation of their needs. The assessment of Adverse Child Experiences (ACEs) reveals the cumulative impact of trauma on young minds and bodies, transfixed by toxic stress. Research has shown an association between high ACEs scores and subsequent violence.

Lessons to be learned

Preventive approaches should therefore be capable of reaching young people and their families before the worst effects show. There is good evidence that developmental programmes can be cost-effective in preventing young people’s involvement in crime. In addition, a strong case can be made that diversion schemes reduce the likelihood of young people’s further contact with the criminal justice system, compared with standard processing. There are lessons to be drawn from the way the Violence Reduction Unit in Scotland has followed the evidence and put in place a long-term strategy. A continuous political commitment is vital if new and more cogent pathways are to be sustained successfully.

David Lammy MP gave a passionate speech on the issues raised in his Review of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic individuals in the criminal justice system.

Implications of drug laws

He emphasised how far drug supply – and therefore the vexed question of drug laws - were right at the heart of serious youth violence, yet policy had not faced up to the implications. Developmental difficulties, if not diagnosed and addressed early, could make young people vulnerable to involvement in crime. He pointed yet again to the disproportionate representation of Black young people in the custodial estate and had important things to say about their limited access to therapy.

He was particularly critical of the low representation of Black people in the judiciary, though in reference to the magistracy he accepted that patterns differed according to localities. It seemed, however, as one of his listeners suggested, that better representation of minorities in key decision-making might not be the whole answer to structural discrimination. Entrenched racism is hard to combat if a majority still dictate the practices of organisations in a multitude of discriminatory ways.

Putting children first

The most encouraging part of the workshop was the shared commitment of local practitioners from a range of organisations to tackle the challenges of meeting children’s needs as a priority, rather than simply letting our flawed criminal justice system take its course. It’s to be hoped that there can be many similar events across London, all inspired by a practical, compassionate vision that puts children first.

Dr Roger Grimshaw is Research Director at the Centre