Youth Justice Policy in the UK

Youth Justice Policy

In order to evaluate why developments in youth justice policy and practice since 1997 are a cause for celebration and concern, the ideological motivations and the wider social and political context will be identified. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998; the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act, 1999 and the Anti Social Behaviour Act 2003 will be discussed in terms of the motivating ideology and rational underpinning. The practical implications of the acts and their social consequences will be evaluated in order to demonstrate what the acts achieve and where they fail to serve the rights of the individual in the youth justice system.

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Developments in youth justice policy and practice in the previous decade have been rooted in an ideological context that incorporates both neo-liberal approaches of responsibility and risk management (Muncie, 2006) and neo-conservative ideologies that entail an authoritarian realisation of policy (Muncie & Hughes, 2002). However, cultural elements cannot be undermined when considering factors that motivate the formation of youth justice policy. Increasingly, a culture of fear and intimidation has arisen in the UK around society’s youth. Muncie and Hughes (2002) point to cases such as the murder of 2 year old James Bulger by two 10 year olds as contributing factors to this fear culture. The manifestation of this cultural consciousness of fear is demonstrated in the coining of the term ‘hoody’ to represent an intimidating youth in a hooded jumper (Sanders, 2005). Thus youth justice policy must be seen to appease these societal concerns. A result of this is that youth are at risk of criminalisation and marginalisation (Scraton, & Haydon, 2002). The risk is of a presumption that members of youth culture are likely to, or already have committed a criminal act.

To understand whether developments in youth justice policy should be celebrated or be regarded with concern, it is important to understand the aims of the wider context of New Labour Reform. Policy has been motivated by a desire to form a transition from penal to restorative justice (Gelsthorpe & Morris, 2002). This is motivated by a culture of increasing understanding and engaging the offender with the implications of their actions and is reflective of the New Labour political stance to be tough on crime and the causes of it. The resulting revolution in youth justice policy has been criticised for its failure to maintain a consistent ideology throughout (Goldson & Muncie, 2006). The resultant risk is a confused, or muddled ideological approach to youth justice, and a contradictory experience between liberalism and conservatism for the offender passing through the reform system. However, this mixture of ideological approach is increasingly difficult to unify in a diverse multi-cultural society (Newburn, 2002; Fergusson, 2007).

It is against this cultural and political backdrop that three significant pieces of youth justice legislation have emerged. These are the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 and the Anti Social Behaviour Act 2003. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 employs principles of actuarial risk management by imposing local authorities with the duty to implement risk reduction measures within a constituency (Moss, 2001; Farrington, 2002). These Community Safety Strategies are required to specifically address the prevention of youth crime. The practical outcomes of these strategies include the implementation of parenting and child safety orders, local curfews and action plan, detention and training orders (Scanlan, 1998). The Act brought into use the Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) and refuted the previous assumption that individuals under the age of ten should not be criminalised for committing an offence. The ASBO is administered to individuals who are deemed to be behaving in a manner that may cause harm or distress to others.

The use of risk management strategies to form Community Safety Strategies has been both supported and challenged. Rooted in quantitative analysis, they explicitly identify predictor variables for youth criminal activity providing a target area for interventions and preventative measures (Farrington, 1997). Such identified risk factors have frequently included impoverished socio-economic backgrounds, harsh and erratic discipline cultures and peer group influences (Loeber, Farrington & Waschbusch, 1999). Clearly, successful prevention strategies aimed at improving the conditions surrounding these risk factors are of benefit to the juvenile offender and to society as both enjoy improved welfare conditions. However, there are problems inherent in the decentralised approach to Community Safety Strategies. The quantitative approach dictates that concepts are generalised, and the actuarial assessment strategies focus upon efficiency and streamlining through youth justice process (Kempf-Leonard & Peterson, 2000). What is lost is a qualitative, individual approach to youth justice reform, and the individualistic consideration of the most beneficial (if not most efficient) process is absent. Case (2007) argues that this approach neglects to account for the experience of stakeholders such as youth workers and juvenile offenders. A combination of the quantitative and qualitative approaches would improve the ecological validity of risk analysis interpretations.

The Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 amends details of prevention strategies such as parenting contracts and ASBO administration. Inherent in the motivations contributing to the policy is the desire to appease public fear of juvenile offenders by re-establishing a notion of respect within British community culture (Squires, 2008). Rooted in social inclusion discourse, the act predominantly aims in part to improve the educational and social bonds between the youth, parents and the school establishment. This is evident in the parenting contracts which require an insurance of a child’s attendance at school. According to the social development model (Catalano & Hawkins, 1996), factors of poverty and poor education jointly interact to promote the likelihood of delinquent behaviour. By ensuring parental and childhood engagement with education, this link can be broken. Furthermore, parents may be required to attend parenting courses if their child’s behaviour is not deemed to improve. The act states that local education authorities are able to engage with parents of children excluded from school in order to establish the contractual process. The Act also puts in place powers for police to disperse groups of more than two individuals in public spaces if they appear to be causing nuisance.

There are problems inherent in these new powers allocated to the police. Research has demonstrated that groups of youths are more readily perceived as threatening than congregated groups of other age groups (Mille, Jacobson, McDonald, & Hough, 2005). Furthermore, local agencies present conflict in how to deal with individuals deemed to be engaging in anti-social practice. There appears to be a difficulty in balancing neo-liberal and neo-conservative approaches and the favoured approach may vary regionally. Mille et al (2005) also demonstrated a discrepancy between national perceptions and local implementations of ASBO administration. A national consensus that there should be an emphasis on enforcement contrasts with the local implementation of social inclusion policies. While parenting courses have been deemed as successful in the short-term (Kazdin, 1997), concerns have been raised about the long-term efficacy and the cost effectiveness of national implementation. It has also been demonstrated that the notion of responsibility has been centralised in governmental youth justice reform and that the rights of the parent and the child have not been sufficiently conceptualised to deal with this (Hollingsworth, 2007). The failure to do this has resulted in a social stigmatisation and criminalisation of families with low socio-economic status (Goldson, 2002) which negates the desired effects of social inclusion. The overall result of the Act is the social penalisation and discrimination of young individuals and working class parents.

The Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 was also borne out of a desire to effectively manage youth crime issues in a manner that was economically efficient. The focus on crime prevention and intervention is borne out of this motivation for efficiency. It has been deemed that prevention of crime is more cost effective than punitive measures once the act has been committed (Winter, 2007). Furthermore, concepts of diagnosis, rehabilitation and reformation are considered too individualistic and are more efficiently managed by employing applications of resource management (Muncie, 1999). In order to improve efficiency, the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 orders the referral of first time youth offenders to panels as opposed to serving a custodial sentence. The resource of the panel which is allocated to the youth offender is deemed to be an early solution to re-offending, ensuring that the individual does not become a habitual criminal. This will ensure that the individual requires less resources overall from the penal system.

The practical outcome of the Youth Justice and Criminal Act 1999 is that the juvenile offender is referred to a panel upon the first offence if they plead guilty. The individual confers with the panel to produce an action plan that the youth will adhere too. Action plans are aimed at improving the social circumstances of the child and negating risk factors. On the outset this appears positive. The offending individual is consulted and if able to work co-operatively, is theoretically able to engage in a rehabilitative process that will deter future offending behaviour. While this approach has deemed to initially appear as an effective measure, further research is required to fully determine the effectiveness of the approach (Anand, 1999). Muncie (1999) argues that the re-conceptualisation of rehabilitative issues into resource management rhetoric results in a depoliticised issue where youth justice problems are viewed as requiring efficient management as opposed to resolution. Therefore, while the alternative to custodial sentences may prove beneficial, it is important that the emphasis on rehabilitation is still prominent.

It has been determined that youth justice policy is rooted in a conflicting ideological basis centred upon neo-liberal and neo-conservative ideals. This occurs against a backdrop of a social context of a mass cultural fear of the young individual. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 are borne out of political motivations to govern public services with economic efficiency. What results is a process that manages youth justice as a resource issue. Any focus upon individual needs and rehabilitative process is threatened. Actuarial concepts do favour preventative measures which can work to improve the circumstances of the individual. The Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 aims to improve social inclusion by re-conceptualising notions of social responsibility. However, the administration of parenting contacts; and the power to move on groups of individuals, results in a criminalisation of young individuals and families of lower socio-economic status.


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