Youth justice policy: Present and future

Richard Garside
Thursday, 13 July 2017

The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies is an independent educational charity, based in London, that advances public understanding of crime, criminal justice and social harm. Through partnership and coalition-building, advocacy and research, we work to inspire social justice solutions to the problems society faces, so that many responses that criminalise and punish are no longer required.

As that short summary suggests, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies tends to view criminalisation and the operations of the criminal justice system as problematic, rather than beneficial. Through our ‘Justice Matters’ programme of activities, we have been developing the implication of this perspective for some years.

When we look across the range of public services – health, education, social services, social protection, criminal justice – there is something striking and singular about the justice system.

Engagement with the health system is usual beneficial to a person’s health. School and university students generally finish their studies more educated and more informed than when they started.

It is a peculiar feature of the criminal justice system that it tends to damage those whose lives it touches:

  • the hundreds of thousands of young people stopped and searched by the police every year, for no good reason.
  • those released from prison, generally left in a worse shape and less able to lead fulfilling lives, than when they went in.
  • witnesses and victims of crime who often feel let down.
  • those working in the police, prison service, probation and other criminal justice agencies, who routinely find their jobs stressful and demoralising.

In short, the institutions and operations of our criminal justice system are a deeply flawed response to those acts and behaviours we have learned to call ‘crime’ and ‘offending’. The aim should be to develop better solutions to the problems our society faces, so that responses that criminalise and punish are no longer required.

Youth justice as harmful

This is no more true than in the case of the youth justice system. As a report by the Barrow Cadbury Trust – called Lost in Transition – puts it:

Criminal justice policies in England and Wales do unnecessary damage to the life chances of young adult offenders and often make them more, not less, likely to re-offend. They make it harder for young adults to lead crime-free lives and exacerbate the widespread problems of social exclusion that other government policies aspire to ameliorate.

This report was published in 2005. Much has changed in the intervening years. The central point – about the harm caused by the youth justice system – remains as true today as it was then.

Youth justice trends

The good news is that the youth justice system is, in aggregate terms, probably causing less harm than it was when the Barrow Cadbury Trust published Lost in Transition. Over the past decade, in England and Wales, there have been big falls in:

  • The number of under 18s arrested: down from around 350,000 in 2006 to around 90,000 last year.
  • The number of first time entrants into the youth justice system: down from around 110,000 in 2006 to around 18,000 last year.
  • The numbers given a youth caution: down from 122,000 in 2006 to 18,000 last year.
  • The number of prosecutions: down from around 132,000 in 2006 to some 40,000 last year.
  • The number of convictions: down from just under 100,000 in 2006 to around 28,000 last year.
  • The numbers given community sentences: down from around 62,000 in 2006 to around 20,000 last year.
  • The numbers sent to prison: down from 6,000 in 2006 to around 1,500 last year.

Over the last decade we have therefore witnessed a very welcome unwinding and shrinking of the youth justice system. The aggregate harm being caused has probably declined.

That the country has not been overrun by a youth crime wave offers some grounds for concluding that the justice system and punishment play only a marginal role in controlling crime and keeping us safe.

While the aggregate harm has probably declined, it has also been concentrated on those that remain. Ethnic disproportionalities, for instance, have grown, with a larger proportion of black children and young people in the youth justice system.

The scandalous behaviour of staff at Rainsbrook and Medway secure training centres are almost certainly the tip of a much larger iceberg of abuse and unacceptable practice. A prison inspectorate report on Feltham Young Offenders Institution, published earlier this year, found:

As far as the safety of the establishment was concerned, levels of violence and the use of force had increased since the last inspection. Some of the violence was very serious, involving multiple assailants and the use of weapons. However, the response in terms of behaviour management was ineffective, with a focus on sanctions and regime restrictions. This had resulted in a cycle of violence and punitive responses, with no obvious strategy to break it. At the last inspection we made 17 recommendations to improve safety, and a mere three had been achieved.

Bearing in mind the age of the boys held at Feltham A, the restricted regime to which they were subjected did little or nothing to contribute to their education, socialisation or, clearly, their safety. Every single meal was taken alone, locked in their cells. We found that 40% of the boys were locked up during the school day, and 30% of the boys were out of their cells for just two hours each day. On average, boys were out of their cells for about 4.5 hours, a decrease from the still totally inadequate 5.5 hours at the time of the last inspection. The lack of exercise and sunlight must carry implications for the health and well-being of teenage boys.

Another Inspectorate report, published last year, found that ‘nearly half of children had, at some point, felt unsafe in the... [Youth Offender Institution] or secure training centre... in which they were currently accommodated.’

Children in trouble with the law

So who are these children in trouble with the law? Who ends up arrested, prosecuted, convicted and punished?

Typically, children in trouble with the law have endured a range of personal, social and economic problems, ranging from blighted childhoods, mental distress, trauma and violence through to substance misuse, poverty and exclusion and other social challenges.

Take, for instance, this account, by a young woman we interviewed for a report, called My Story, which we published in 2011. She was on a four year prison sentence for offences of false imprisonment, aggravated burglary and possession of an imitation firearm, committed when she was 16. Her mother had left her father, who had become violent. He later held the young woman we interviewed hostage, in an attempt to force a reconciliation with her mother. The subsequent death of her father from a health condition, was a turning point:

I remember going back to school and I was crying, and I had loads of hour detentions to do from before the funeral. And I remember the teacher saying to me, ‘I know what’ll make you smile, I’ll take all your hour detentions off so you don’t have to do them.’ That was my first day back at school after that.

I was always late for school, I couldn’t really be bothered going in. I can’t even remember what I put down to do in the years [courses].

I got put into a unit in the end.

It was just for kids who are expelled from school, or the school couldn’t cope with them.

If you were good for the week they took you to McDonald’s or KFC. We had done a bit of maths, English. It wasn’t really like a school.

I hated it.

Because I wasn’t with any of my mates anymore. I just stopped going, I wouldn’t go.

She told us she couldn’t remember the details of the offences she was involved in, with others:

[My feelings when I came back to my mothers after the offence] were relief to get away from it and probably embarrassment that I’d done something like that.

And probably just loads of guilt.

About being involved in the offences, and thinking that I wouldn’t want someone to do that to me.

I know [my] right from wrong so I knew that was wrong. And I was just in a situation that I couldn’t get out of and was just going along. But probably I could have got out of it but you just feel like you can’t.

Or take a young man we interviewed for the same project, who had been given an indeterminate prison sentences for rape of a child under 13 and other sexual assault offences committed between the ages of 13 and 14.

There is this:

I remember once my mum and dad were arguing over something and my dad smacked my mum over the head with a broom.

He hit her over the head with a broom and she’s still got a permanent lump on her head now, the lump’s never ever gone down.

He also told us this:

When I was really young my mum hanged me over a balcony- that was when I was only a little baby- and threatened to drop me, and then I was seen, I think I must have only been about two, I was out early hours in the morning on my own.

And he told us this:

One minute I can be okay and then a minute later, I can start to kick off, I can just change in seconds and my whole attitude, my whole mentality. I’ll be calm and then I’ll just get angry and then I’ll just think ‘Fuck it, I’ve got nothing to work towards now, I’ve lost it all anyway, just go do what you’ve got to do’. I used to ruin things for myself.

He was sent to boarding school at a young, in failed attempt to mange his troubled behaviour, including sexualised behaviour. He told us:

All the time I was having sex in boarding school.

I used to have sex with the girls that were in the dormitory. Obviously they wasn’t made to do it...

I could go to their bedrooms whenever I wanted...

It’s in all the reports, it’s very well documented, that sexual activity.

It was probably from about eight [years of age], maybe eight and a bit upwards, to eleven.

These are not uncommon stories. They are common, in all their variation, among many children in trouble with the law.

As are a range of other psychological or neurological problems:

  • Between 60 and 90 per cent of young people in custody have a significant communication impairment, compared with only five to seven per cent among the general youth population.
  • 23 to 32 per cent of young people custody have a learning disability, compared with only two to four per cent in the general youth population.
  • 15 per cent of those in custody are on the autism spectrum, compared with only one per cent in the general youth population.

What should be happening?

The youth justice system focuses on the deeds of children – what they have done to get into trouble – rather than why they have done these things and what their needs are as individuals and members of society.

To the degree to which these social and personal needs are addressed, it is generally done as an adjunct to the process of punishment – anger management programmes in prison, for instance, help with housing on release – rather than being instead of it.

The starting point of any effective and just policy should be the needs of children and young people with the law, rather than the processing and punishment of the offence. Rather like the man with the hammer, who sees every problem as a nail, there is an unthinking tendency to look to criminal justice processes and sanctions as the answer to all those often disruptive and troubling acts and behaviours we call crime.

What is required is an emotional intelligence among those who research, analyse and devise policy: to think seriously and deeply about what we as a society are doing to those many troubled people processed by the criminal justice system each year, and how we might develop approaches grounded in the principles of social justice, decency and respect.

What might this mean? I will be brief:

  • We should continue the current trend in shrinking the youth justice system, and start shrinking the adult system. This means fewer police, fewer prosecutions, fewer prisons and prison officers, fewer probation officers.
  • Better support for schools, families and communities dealing with the troublesome behaviour of mostly troubled children and young people.
  • Investment in youth work and social work to place prevention and support at the heart of practice.
  • Community regeneration and investment in those areas and regions where children and young people are growing up with little optimism about their futures and the opportunities they might have.

And finally, we should raise the age of criminal responsibility – currently set at 10 – to a level consistent with our commonly held notions of when someone becomes a responsible adult. This would imply raising it to at least 16, probably 18.

Doing so would not stop children doing dangerous and disturbing things. But it would be a spur for the development of alternative, non punitive approaches.