Monica Barry is a senior research fellow at the Glasgow School of Social Work, and an honorary senior research fellow at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research.
Fergus McNeill is Professor of Criminology & Social Work at the Glasgow School of Social Work, a joint initiative of the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde, and Network Leader at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow, Scotland, UK.
Monica and Fergus are Editors of the new book, Youth Offending and Youth Justice, part of Jessica Kingsley Publishers’ Research Highlights in Social Work series.
Though young people’s behaviour has been a perennial preoccupation of their elders, an exceptional amount has been said and written about youth offending and youth justice since the election of New Labour in 1997. Of course, these topics have not been the sole preserve of political speech writers or media commentators; academic researchers and youth justice practitioners have sometimes risen to the challenge of trying to engage critically both with political and media discussions of youth crime. That said, it would be hard to argue that research evidence and practice experience have been the basis for youth justice policy, far less for public debate. Policy makers may increasingly insist on ‘evidence-based practice’, but can it really be said that youth justice policy has been interested in any evidence beyond that offered by focus groups, opinion polls and ballot boxes?
These are some of the issues and questions that a new collection in the Research Highlights series entitled ‘Youth Offending and Youth Justice’ set out to address. The contributors include leading academics from around the UK and overseas, some of whom have been actively engaged not just with academic research but also with policy and practice development. The book is in two halves. The first engages with the evidence about the evolution of youthful offending and with public and political reactions to it. The second engages with key aspects of youth justice practice in courts, in the community, in custodial institutions and in its multi-professional organisational settings. The four inter-related themes that emerge from the nine substantive chapters make for sobering reading.
Criminalisation and Stigmatisation
Young people are being criminalised at an earlier age and for a wider range of behaviours than ever before; their parents are also increasingly the target of criminalising practices. With this criminalisation comes new forms of stigmatisation enacted not just through familiar labelling processes but also through the more subtle effects of risk assessment procedures which stigmatise not only on the basis of what has been done by young people but on the basis of sometimes dubious judgments about what they may do. Other means of stigmatisation and criminalisation come in the form of so-called ‘summary justice’, which Rod Morgan, former Chair of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales, describes as ‘punishment without prosecution’.
Criminalisation usually comes hand in hand with punishment. For those brought before the court, where too many now arrive not for criminal offences but for breaching summary justice requirements, an increasing number are being detained in custody for longer periods and for less serious offences, despite an overall drop in youth crime in recent years. Too often, detention equates with mere containment – not only of the individual but of the wider problem of youth crime. Whether it is found in public opinion, in the intent of interventions or in young people’s experiences of them, the rise of punitiveness is particularly worrying because it is not accompanied by any reassertion of a rights-based approach to youth justice. Quite the contrary — the usual due process checks and balances that are in place where a justice model is pursued are being eroded.
For politicians it seems to make sense to assert that young people choose to commit crimes for purely personal reasons; sometimes policy makers and practitioners have responded with the pragmatic but naïve suggestion that (only) by cognitive behavioural training will young people learn that crime does not necessarily pay. This focus on the individualization of the problem and the responsibilization of young people feeds with earlier criminalization, increased punishment, more intrusive interventions, a greater use of imprisonment for young people and a policy rationale which denies the need for broader structural change. The responsibilization of the ‘deviant youth’ represents an exoneration of the rest of ‘us’ and of the state itself; as such, it is a dagger in the heart not only of collective social responsibility but also of social and community cohesion.
Policies and Practices that Make Matters Worse?
It seems that too often policies are built on political expedience and perceptions of the public mood, rather than on sound evidence. But there is evidence that less help and more punishment, from the young person’s point of view, may lead to more offending and less concern for the consequences. Too often marginalised young people have no stake in the future to protect through conforming and see no feasible means of acquiring one.
The contributions in this volume spell out the same message about youth justice time and again: namely that the preoccupation with ‘youth’ is at the expense of ‘justice’. Too readily such systems exist or at least function so as to punish and to challenge individual young people rather than to question the extent to which the wider society is as much, if not more, to blame for the disadvantages they face. Yet too many of the real drivers of youth crime – those drivers that reside in the fabric of our late-modern societies and the inequalities that they perpetuate – are beyond its reach. But herein lies both the paradox and the ultimate solution; youth justice is the answer to youth crime – but only in the sense that were we ever to arrive at a society that did justice to and by its children and young people, that really acted as if Every Child Mattered, that genuinely ordered its affairs so as to secure children and young people’s health, safety, achievement, positive involvement and economic wellbeing, then we would find ourselves in a society much less troubled by youth crime.