The UK’s poor record in resettling young offenders may be due to the way our empathy changes when children become adolescents, says Dean Woodward
Why is there such a poor success rate in our work to resettle young offenders back into the community? A recent article by Camilla Pemberton in Community Care highlighted the problems facing those leaving young offender institutions and the widespread failures among councils to provide the support they need on release. This often leads to reoffending.
On a micro level, the focus is on youth offending teams and housing departments and comparing local authorities. This is not to dismiss the work that remains to be done at a local level, particularly in relation to the implications of the Southwark judgement. This decreed that homeless teenagers must be treated as children-in-need in addition to being provided with suitable housing.
But having accommodation and support organised on release is not a solution to all that goes wrong in resettlement. Too often, accommodation arrangements break down.
Is this because the young offenders in custody are the most challenging and things are more likely to go wrong when case-managing this group? Or is it because the custody model, in general, is inherently expensive, inefficient and ineffective?
Rather than a sole focus on looking for local solutions should we also be asking the overarching question “are there too many young offenders in custody?”. Is the quality of our work simply too diluted by the quantity of young people requiring resettlement from custody?
Pemberton’s article included an interesting statistic – up to 49% of young offenders have been in local authority care. Although it is higher than I would have expected, it is not a great surprise. I think the most interesting part of this statistic is how they are perceived when viewed as separate groups.
When the NSPCC puts out an advert to gain public support for children needing care and state protection it does not use the image of a teenage young offender. To capture the compassion and generosity of the public, an image of a baby or a toddler is used. The public respond and give generously to the NSPCC.
However, the reality is that many of these babies and toddlers become some of the most challenging and vulnerable young offenders that are sent to custody in ever-increasing numbers. For some reason the public’s empathy seems to have a cut-off point around the early teens. We stop feeling empathy for their experiences and our feelings turn to fear or an outright intolerance just as they are navigating the difficult path from childhood to adulthood. But adolescents are still children.
As a society, we can recognise their needs as children in nearly every other aspect of life. Young people under 18 are prevented from participating in adults’ activities because they do not fully understand the consequences of their actions. However, when it comes to offending, and the imposition of custody, there seems to be an assumption that they are children with the adult ability to understand the consequences of their actions.
Dean Woodward is assistant director of Lambeth Specialist Youth Services
This article is published in the 8 April 2010 edition of Community Care under the headline “Why do we treat children as adults when they offend?”