Suffer little children

It is hard to construct a youth justice system that can contain
children with desperate needs, while also controlling and
discouraging their unacceptable behaviour. Caring services can
easily be overwhelmed or distorted by popular attempts to assuage
the fear of crime and punish those we fear.

So it is easy to be suspicious of the proposals for identifying and
supporting children as young as eight who are at risk of offending
and their families. Yet the idea of a multi-agency response in many
contexts – at home, at school, at large – is right. There is an
obvious danger of stigmatising families, but research launched by
the National Family and Parenting Institute this week points to the
value families place on services that initially seem an unwelcome
imposition (parenting programmes, in that case).

But in the context of this country’s general treatment of young
offenders, it’s not surprising people fear the proposals will in
fact extend a punitive and stigmatising response to younger and
younger children.

After all, we know that those currently involved in the youth
justice system have severe difficulties, yet run a high risk of
their needs for support and care being overlooked.

The Youth Justice Board must heed concerns that the Youth Inclusion
and Support Panels will label children in a way that could
exacerbate exclusion, while effectively lowering the age of
criminal responsibility by identifying “potential offenders” who
are only eight. As it is, the fact that children are counted
criminally responsible at age 10 has been criticised by the United
Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.

It would be better if, from the user’s perspective, these services
are not owned by the youth justice system.

But the only real way to ensure the new Youth Inclusion and Support
Panels put children first is to ensure the rest of our youth
justice system does the same. Otherwise an initiative that should
add weight to the “care” end of services could lead to ever younger
children being pushed over the edge into the harsh system of crime
and punishment.

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