In the wake of the August London riots, police, government officials and justice workers have joined together to address and prevent youth crime. Indicative of this are two very intriguing conferences which were held within two days of one another. On January 16th, the Centre for Social Justice launched their recent report entitled Rules of Engagement: Changing the Heart of Youth Justice, and on January 18th, there was a conference on the use of restorative justice with young people, entitled Widening the Use of Restorative Justice in the Youth Justice System. Two issues arising out of these conferences were the age of criminal responsibility and the idea of young people paying part of their wages to victims.

Rules of Engagement

The Rules of Engagement report appears to challenge the commonplace notion that some young people are inherently criminal, pointing instead to the link between social breakdown and crime. It identifies educational failure, family breakdown, addiction, worklessness and economic dependency, and debt as pathways which often lead to criminality. At the CSJ Youth Justice Report launch, Professor Rod Morgan outlined the key elements and recommendations of the report. Such recommendations included: building trusting relationships across justice sectors, shifting the focus from individuals to communities, giving police greater discretionary powers and creating strategic reviews for youth offending teams. An executive summary of the report may be accessed here.

Differing opinions on the age of criminal responsibility

Minister of Prisons and Probations Crispin Blunt MP agreed with most of the assertions made by Professor Morgan, but disagreed on the age of criminal responsibility. He explained that out of 2886 ten and eleven year-old children arrested from 2009-2010, only two were given custodial sentences. Therefore, he argued, the incarceration rate of children of such an age is very low and not such a pressing issue. He claimed that children as young as 10 are able to distinguish right from wrong, and should be held accountable for their actions. A psychologist in the audience took issue with this point and argued that the brains of adolescents are not fully formed until they are twenty-five years of age. As a result, adolescents may not be fully aware of the consequences of their actions.

Once this topic was raised, it pervaded almost every response the panel gave. Truthfully, this discussion appeared to detract from the important messages the report had to offer. A debate arose as to whether or not ten and eleven year-old children are able to comprehend the difference between right and wrong. Perhaps a more useful debate in the context of this conference would have been an exploration of the factors that lead to such young people committing crime, such as poverty and abuse in childhood.

UN convention duties

Professor Morgan also suggested the UK may be failing its obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989by locking up children so young. Article 27 of the Convention outlines the state’s responsibility to ensure children have an adequate standard of living for their physical, spiritual, mental, moral and social development. It could be argued that prison is certainly not an environment conducive to such growth. Article 37 of this Convention asserts that imprisonment of children should be used as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate amount of time. The Coalition government, however, has been promoting a “get tough on youth crime approach”. As such, incarceration serves as the primary punishment for young people’s criminal behaviour. IARS’ 99% campaignseeks to address inaccurate perceptions of youth involvement in crime.

In Canada, the age of criminal responsibility is twelve. Before the passing of the Youth Criminal Justice Actin 2003, Canada received strong international criticism for having one of the highest rates of youth incarceration in the world. The Act came into force under new guidelines which substantially reduced the number of youth in custody, but allowed for harsher sentences for youth committing serious crimes. Although received much better than its predecessor, the Young Offender’s Act ,improvements still need to be made in Canada to ensure that the best interests of young offenders are being met.

Some have suggested that incarceration does more harm than good for children and alternative punishments must be applied, despite whether a child is ten or twelve. However, high-profile cases involving serious crimes committed by children remain present in the realm of public consciousness. The murder of James Bulgerby two ten year-old boys, supports the case for criminal responsibility remaining at ten years of age. In Canada, twelve year-old Jasmine Richardsonmurdered her parents and brother in order to be with her boyfriend. Although cases such as these are the exception and not the rule, they are used to justify the criminalisation of young children.

The ideals of restorative justice

Although punitive sanctions are much more commonplace, restorative justice practices have begun to enter the criminal justice system. The presenters at the conference on January 18th spoke of the great potential for restorative justice, not only in the criminal justice system, but also in other settings such as schools. Speaker Bill Kerslake from the Youth Justice Board outlined the priorities of the Youth Offending Board when implementing restorative justice practices:

  1. To prevent offending
  2. To reduce offending
  3. To protect the public and support victims
  4. Promote safety and welfare of children and young people in the criminal justice system
  5. To increase the range and availability of restorative justice

 

These priorities speak to the nature of restorative justice: that of taking responsibility, working together collaboratively, and trying to repair harm. One issue raised by Crispin Blunt MP at the conference has the potential to fail to uphold such values: the allocation of a certain percentage of an offender’s wages to his or her victims. On the face of it, this seems like a logical and fair idea. Offenders work during the day, then give a certain percentage of their wages to their victims. They end up making money while having an opportunity to repay their victims without going into debt. However, certain ideals of restorative justice may not be upheld by this practice. Offenders may not truly accept responsibility for their crimes. They may feel forced into this employment program because it is the only way they can pay their victims court-order restitution. Furthermore, once victims have received their restitution, the restorative justice process may be perceived as complete. Perhaps victims who require further services may be considered closed cases because that was all the court ordered. Additionally, what of the victims who cannot be repaid with restitution? Those who suffered assaults, for example, may feel jaded by a lack of a helpful program for cases such as their own.

 

The numerous reports and conferences focusing on youth offending are positive indicators that society and the criminal justice system are trying to address the causes of youth crime. Although certain issues may cause debates and disagreements, it is promising that people are starting to talk about change.