What golden age?

I agree with much of John Pitts’ analysis of the recent history
of the youth justice system and the contemporary issues facing it
(“Campaign Briefing: Youth Crime”, 3 March). However, as with all
commentaries penned by observers who have long laboured in a
particular policy vineyard and seen it take off in unintended
directions, Pitts has a tendency to fight old, lost battles. We
need to face up to some difficult truths to encourage the adoption
of better informed policies. That way, we may collectively be able
to forge a degree of political consensus in Britain.

Pitts argues that: “Up until the mid-1990s, the youth justice
system in England and Wales had been organised around the principle
that a child in trouble was, first and foremost, a child in need
and that in order to minimise stigma, less serious young offenders
should be diverted out of the system altogether and, wherever
possible, more serious ones should be placed in community-based
alternatives to custody. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 reversed
these assumptions. It favoured the earliest possible intervention,
using evidence-based programmes which focused upon the criminal and
antisocial deeds of children and young people rather than their
social or psychological needs.”

This diagnosis is partly true but incorporates some questionable
assumptions. First, it implicitly sees criminal and social justice
interventions as antithetical, re-enacting the flawed welfare
versus justice, deprived versus depraved youth justice debates of
the 1960s and 1970s.

Second, it suggests that diversion from criminal justice is
somehow more likely to lead to social or psychological needs being
met, and that this was the case prior to the mid-1990s.

And third, it suggests that interventions involving criminal
justice agencies, particularly early interventions, uniquely
stigmatise, whereas not intervening does not.

Let us recall a few facts. In the early 1990s there was a change
of mood regarding youth justice policy which culminated in the
influential 1996 Audit Commission report Misspent Youth. (1) The
factors which precipitated that change of mood included:

  • A continuing upward trend in recorded crime.
  • A growing official preoccupation with those persistent young
    offenders demonstrably responsible for a disproportionate amount of
  • Several well-publicised urban disturbances involving young
  • Doubts that the significant fall in the number of juveniles
    cautioned or found guilty in criminal proceedings reflected any
    decline in the incidence of juvenile crime.

There were, of course, other factors – not least the shockwaves
from the murder of James Bulger. Politicians did not conjure
something out of nothing. There was a lack of public confidence and
the Audit Commission and other bodies subsequently demonstrated
that that concern was well founded. Children’s needs were not being
met. A high proportion were failing at school. Child poverty was
extensive and repeat juvenile offending was widely engaged in with
virtual impunity.

The commission concluded: “Overall, less is done now than a
decade ago to address offending by young people.”

Youth services had been decimated and virtually nothing was
spent on youth crime prevention. There was a widespread belief that
nothing worked and “some workers came to believe that it did not
matter what they did, as long as they did little of it” (2) – a
conviction associated with a “tokenistic view of direct work with
young people… at best ineffective and at worst

Following the Crime and Disorder Act, multi-agency youth
offending teams (Yots) were established because all the evidence
suggested that troubled children in trouble were being failed by
mainstream services – notably, education, health and social
services. It was convincingly argued that there was no essential
conflict between meeting the needs and protecting the welfare of
persistent young offenders and preventing their re-offending.
Failure to intervene protected neither the public nor the child,
nor did it satisfy the requirements of criminal or social

That contention is as true today as in the mid-1990s. We also
have to recognise the extent of our problems in Britain. Most
persistent young offenders are still recruited from a pool of
multiple deprivation, and the youth justice system identifies and
tackles these needs better today than in any pre-1990s supposed
golden age.

The reformed system has pioneered early prevention initiatives –
youth inclusion support panels (Yisps), youth inclusion programmes
(Yips), Safer Schools, school holiday activity schemes, and so on –
which we expect, with the advent of the Children Act 2004, and the
development of children’s trusts, will become more closely linked
with mainstream services. They are being evaluated and evidence so
far from Yips shows positive outcomes, including reductions in
arrest rates and school exclusions (4).

Stigmatisation must be avoided but the reality is that often
these children are already well known to their communities but
being failed by services. The aim is to reduce the likelihood that
they will continue to be labelled as “problem” children in the

Arguably, too many children are needlessly and
counter-productively brought before the courts, although a third of
these are now subject to referral orders, which emphasise support,
reparation and restorative justice rather than punishment. Too many
children are in custody, but the Youth Justice Board and the Yots
are addressing this overload by better delivering final warnings
and building the confidence of sentencers in intensive supervision
and surveillance schemes.

A case can certainly be made that Yots have become such
effective teams that, ironically, they have sometimes become too
distanced from some of the agencies from which members have been
recruited. Much remains to be achieved regarding mental health and
education services, for example.

But this is a classic example of seeing the glass as half empty
rather than half full. Recent years have witnessed a sea change in
the way the youth justice system and mainstream services work in
close partnership, exchanging information and pursuing integrated
welfare and criminal justice agendas.

What we need now is not harking back to some non-existent golden
age but vigorously taking up the spirit and letter of Every Child
Matters and grasping all opportunities to achieve a consensus.


In response to John Pitts’ analysis of youth justice issues for
Community Care, this article reviews the reforms of the youth
justice system over the last few years. It emphasises the
complementary relationship between criminal justice and social
justice, and, through the introduction of youth offending teams,
the improved ability to tackle the root causes of offending
behaviour as well as to deliver court orders. While recognising the
progress made as a result of the reforms, the article acknowledges
continuing areas of weakness.


  1. Audit Commission, Misspent Youth, 1996
  2. D Smith, “Social Work with Young People in Trouble: Memory and
    Prospect”, in B Goldson (editor) Youth Justice: Contemporary Policy
    and Practice, Ashgate, 1999
  3. R Smith, Youth Justice: Ideas, Policy, Practice, Willan,
  4. Morgan Harris Burrows, Evaluation of Youth Inclusion Programme,
    End of Phase One Report, Youth Justice Board, 2003

Contact the Author

E-mail enquiries@yjb.gsi.gov.uk

Rod Morgan became chair of the Youth Justice Board in
April 2004. He was formerly chief inspector of probation for
England and Wales. Before that, he was professor of criminal
justice at the faculty of law, University of Bristol, where he
remains professor emeritus. For more than 20 years, he was a lay
magistrate, chair of a youth court and a member of an independent
monitoring board for a remand centre.

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