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Ali Crossley: If we want to tackle youth crime, we must be prepared to make greater efforts to understand its drivers

Ali CrossleyAli Crossley is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) and author of their recent publication on youth justice, Rules of Engagement: changing the heart of youth justice (pdf). The CSJ can be followed on Twitter: @CSJ_thinktank.

This week the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) published a major review of the youth justice system in England and Wales. We called for a drastic reduction in the number of children (over 5,000) who are needlessly dumped in prison each year and set out a bold new approach to cut crime. In the report, Rules of Engagement, we identify four key youth justice failures.

First, the youth justice system is functioning as a ‘backstop’: sweeping up the cases that other local services, such as schools and children’s social care, have not addressed. For instance, too many children are ending up in the youth justice system because opportunities are missed to intervene when parents are involved in the criminal justice system. To change this local services must work together to ensure that young people and their families receive help to prevent entry into the youth justice system and, if already involved, the support to deliver their rehabilitation.

Second, the system promotes rather than reduces offending. Prison is used as a dumping ground for the non-violent and repeat offending children who do not need to be there. Their incarceration is a reflection of the inadequacy of services in the community, which have failed to address the root causes of their behaviour. Whilst sentences must be tough and meaningful, confining children to grim regimes creates obedient prisoners, not law-abiding citizens. That gives us immense problems as a society. Further, decisions to release children on a Friday, without money and with no address, act as a catalyst for crime. Greater efforts must be made to ensure that prison is reserved only for the ‘critical few’: the most violent and prolific offenders from whom the public require protection. Prison regimes and post-release arrangements must maximise the potential for rehabilitation.

Third, process stifles the business of life-change. Practitioners robotically tick boxes and follow process without consideration of whether their actions are dealing with young peoples’ behaviour. We have seen the consequences of this: children in residential care homes arrested and held in police cells over a weekend after throwing a bowl of Sugar Puffs. Youngsters involved in minor playground scuffles branded a life-long threat to children, thus barring them from areas of employment. Instead, common sense must characterise responses to youth misbehaviour. The professional judgement and expertise of practitioners must be supported to ensure that decisions are made in the best interests of young people and society.

Fourth, it has become clear to the CSJ, over many years, that positive, stable relationships between young people and adults are fundamental to successful rehabilitation. Yet this continues to be overlooked. Practitioners spend the majority of their time behind desks rather than building one-to-one relationships with those they are paid to help. An understanding of the transformative effect of relationships – between young people, their families and youth justice workers – should inform the whole youth justice structure. And, as no appraisal of the youth justice system could be complete without it, we have examined the issue of whether the current minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR), at ten, is appropriate. Our judgement is that it is too low and does not deliver the best outcomes for society.

Nearly half a century ago the minimum age of criminal responsibility (MACR) was elevated from eight to ten years old. Since then, a large body of research has accumulated indicating that early adolescence (below 13-14 years of age) is a period of marked neurodevelopmental immaturity. During this time children may be deemed less responsible for their behaviour and have limited competence to participate (for example, to decide how to plead and respond to cross-examination) in criminal justice proceedings.

Compelling evidence also demonstrates that involving children in the criminal justice system only increases the likelihood of their offending in future. This is particularly true of those who begin offending at a very young age; bad behaviour stems from their chaotic and often abusive childhoods, and is more likely to be effectively addressed through robust, challenging measures delivered by children’s welfare services, outside of the system. This would include custody for the most serious offenders. In view of this, recent suggestions that the MACR should be lowered to eight, such as those made by Bruce Anderson in his article ‘Prisons can work better’, are misguided. Such a move would serve only to embed and worsen a child’s criminal tendencies.

As our review makes clear, we strongly believe in young people taking responsibility for their actions and being appropriately punished. Yet if society wants to see youth crime tackled it must be prepared to make greater efforts to understand and address its drivers. We must do better than simply condemn these children for their crimes, or we will all continue to pay the price.


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