Echoes of punitive past

Talk of progress is one thing, achieving it quite another. There is
no better example than the government’s policy on youth justice,
where youth offending teams have been briefed to reduce the numbers
of young people sent to prison and intensive supervision and
surveillance programmes (ISSPs) are supposed to provide a ready
alternative to custody. While there is some evidence of success in
pursuing rehabilitation rather than punishment, the policy has been
slow to translate into practice. Our exclusive story about Stoke
Heath Young Offenders Institution reveals that the truth is grimmer
still: young people deemed disruptive can be stripped naked and
incarcerated in tiny cells for days at a time, a punishment more
redolent of a Victorian prison than of a modern penal system.

Years of attempting to change the culture of the youth justice
system have failed to make more than a marginal impact. The
contradictory nature of policy-making in this field is well
illustrated by the home secretary, with his rhetoric about being
tough on crime. But the contradictions go way back.

A criminal justice act introduced by the Tories in the early
nineties had the professed aim of reducing the numbers of young
people in custody, yet they rose by 90 per cent in the ensuing
decade and children here are generally still much more likely to be
jailed than their counterparts elsewhere in Europe. The advent of
ISSPs was supposed to usher in a fundamental rethink of sentencing
policy. Instead the courts have used them to toughen up community
penalties they would have issued anyway and continued dishing out
custodial sentences with nearly as much abandon as they did before.
The result? The number of under-18s in custody fell by a meagre 143
between July 2001 and August 2003.

In the meantime, one tried and tested alternative to prison
custody, council secure children’s homes, faces cutbacks by the
Youth Justice Board, which wants to tilt the balance in favour of
secure training centres where more emphasis is placed on
punishment. The YJB claims that secure training centres provide
better value, a consideration which apparently outweighs the
welfare and the life chances of children subject to this

It is time for talk of progress in youth justice to be backed up by
genuine, deep-seated change in a culture that perpetuates the
opposite, injustice. Only then can we be confident that the
barbarities more usually associated with another era will be

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