Historical links to current youth justice policy

If the latest methods to tackle low-level crime among young people sound familiar they should be, as many of them have been around for hundreds of years, writes Derren Hayes

Louise Casey’s review of criminal justice in July was billed as proposing some radical new ways to tackle antisocial behaviour and low-level crime. Unpaid community service should be rebadged as “community payback” punishments should be more demanding and those taking part in such schemes should be more visible.

But a glance at the history books shows many of these ideas and current youth justice policies are anything but new, and in fact resemble methods of law and order used at various times over the past 400 years.

Faced with a media obsessed with youth crime – most recently knife attacks by young people – and the perceived need to tame increasingly out of control children, the government and policymakers have come up with a succession of initiatives. Yet concern about the behaviour of young people has been going on for hundreds of years.

In Hooligan (A History of Respectable Fears), Geoffrey Pearson, former professor of social work at the University of London, highlights a Howard Association report from 1898 that canvassed the opinions of magistrates and the police. Pearson writes: “The general impression running through its pages was a riot of impunity, irresponsible parents, working mothers and lax discipline in schools, with magistrates and police believing themselves to be impotent before a rising tide of mischief and violence – particularly ‘the recent serious increase in ruffianism among city youths’.”

Popularised by a music hall song of the time, The Victorian Boys, as they became known, were cited for many instances of antisocial behaviour such as spitting at boaters from London’s bridges, pelting cyclists with horse dung and smashing gas lamps.

The following year The Times lamented that fathers were no longer prepared to give their misbehaving sons “a sound whipping to save him from the taint of gaol”.

Of course, corporal punishment as a means for meting out justice is no longer available. And, say experts, this has reduced further what is a limited range of options for tackling youth crime. This explains why much of what is happening now in the youth justice field has its roots in the past.

“I’m not sure that current policy is influenced by, but rather is repeating, policies developed in the past. It seems each generation forgets the lessons of the past,” says Neil Hazel, senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Salford.

Local justice

Will McMahon, policy director at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, says: “Governments have had a narrow range of options particularly since the 1970s. If you accept that there’s nothing you can do about people’s behaviour centrally you are brought down to doing things at a local level.”

It is this recent drive to administer justice locally that highlights the historical comparisons in the methods used to tackle youth offending. Whether it is local authorities issuing antisocial behaviour orders, community courts being created to administer penalties or police publicising the names and faces of young offenders, justice is increasingly administered closer to home.

Rob Allen, director of the International Centre for Prison Studies and a former member of the Youth Justice Board, says Asbos are the most striking example of this. “It resonates with examples of banishment and exile in medieval times where individuals were unable to go into certain areas.”

Hazel says there are also similarities in the development of Asbos and the abolition of child labour in the 19th century. “Legislators closed down options for young people in terms of what they could do during the day and so they were out on the streets. The introduction of vagrancy laws enabled the locking-up of young people for what is now considered child-like behaviour, such as playing games in the street and hanging around in groups. I see similarities today in the way, through the closure of youth clubs and selling of school playing fields, young people are excluded.”

One measure used recently to combat youth crime has been to publicise the names and faces of those convicted of antisocial behaviour or crimes. Allen says naming and shaming has its origins in how people were pilloried by being put in the stocks.

“It’s a long way from physical punishments, but showing pictures of children in the media have the same effect – to ridicule or shame.” To show this, he recalls a newspaper headline “Ban for the imps of Satan”, about a group of 10-year-old Blackpool boys who had been given five-year Asbos.

But for Hazel publicising the misdemeanours of young people through naming and shaming and other visible measures, such as uniforms in young offender institutes, are counter-productive. He says: “It’s a badge of honour that advertises them as part of the criminal justice system. The deeper you push someone into it the worse they will get.”

Such methods also serve another purpose: to show communities that the authorities are acting. And giving local people a say in shaping how the criminal justice system responds to youth offending, through victim panels or community courts, has increased the perception that politicians are acting.

Community involvement

Jack Fawbert, senior lecturer in criminology and social work at Bedford University, identifies this “shift from state punishments to involving the community” as a major development in the past 20 years.

“One reason for this is the massive growth in victimology,” he says. “There’s an emphasis on the victim in restorative justice. This was driven by people feeling they had no say in the criminal justice system and were being let down by it.”

Allen says academics see similarities in restorative justice with the methods used by communities to resolve disputes in the middle ages, well before the legal system that we know today had been established. He says: “For less serious offences there were more informal kinds of justice organised by local elders that had elements of restorative justice, such as allowing the community, victim and offender to have their say and deciding on compensation and damages.”

For Hazel restorative justice has been in use in Scotland through its children’s hearing panels for the past 35 years. But he is sceptical as to its effectiveness. “Restorative justice appears to be about rehabilitation but it is used as a mechanism for children to pay their dues. I question how different it is from the old welfare concerns from the early 1800s when children were punished when they were actually in some form of need.”

The idea that these new approaches to tackling youth offending could be undoing 200 years of progress in how society treats children is not lost on Fawbert. He says: “The modern concept of childhood didn’t exist until the 17th century. Before then you had no concept of the childhood innocence that we know today. Children had adult responsibility from the word go and were punished in the same way adults were.”


Published in the 11 September issue of Community Care under the heading ‘Same Old Story’

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