Targeting teenagers

What can be said about the children of today? They congregate in
threatening groups and abuse passers by. They drink, fight and take
drugs. And when they’re not hanging around on street corners,
they’re joyriding, shoplifting, or mugging pensioners.

Yet lawless young people were making headlines in 19th century
newspapers – when the original “hooligans” were at large – so the
youth of today are perhaps no more threatening or lawless than they
have ever been.

We now have a record number of children in custody in the UK, many
of whom would be labelled “vulnerable” or “children in need” in
other European countries. There is widespread concern about the
number of young people who are committing suicide or self-harming
in prison. At 10, Britain’s age of criminal responsibility is one
of the lowest in Europe, and some of the new powers to tackle
“antisocial” behaviour are undoubtedly targeted at young people.

This is an unhappy situation for a government which arrived in 1997
having had – in opposition – really quite wholesome aspirations for
children in trouble. In 1998, it introduced a range of reforms of
the youth justice system, including setting up the Youth Justice
Board. The widely welcomed aim was to focus on children as, first
and foremost, children, rather than as criminals-in-training.
Custody, the government agreed, should be used sparingly, and where
unavoidable the incarceration should be focused on education and
training. The welfare of the child should remain paramount.

How times change. Five years on, New Labour has nailed its youth
crime colours firmly nailed to the mast. The Antisocial Behaviour
Act 2003 contains many measures aimed at children which opponents
(including a high-profile coalition of nine major children’s
charities and penal reform organisations) argue will contravene
children’s human rights. Youth justice is still dealt with by the
Home Office while all other children’s services are under the remit
of the Department for Education and Skills. Perhaps more
significantly, children in trouble were left out of the children’s
green paper Every Child Matters. Their relegation to a
separate document has prompted some to suggest that “every child
matters – as long as they don’t do anything wrong”.

In fact, in a recent report analysing the youth justice system, the
coalition of concerned organisations argued that current policies
were blurring the boundaries around the criminal justice system,
criminalising children unnecessarily and at younger ages, and that
custody was not being used as a last resort.1 The report
also states: “Responses to children in trouble with the law have
become increasingly centrally controlled, prescribed and regulated
as well as reflecting an overly punitive ethos and being
increasingly mandatory in nature”.

So why the change? One criminal justice expert (who wishes to
remain anonymous), who works in the field, says the government is
allowing itself to be led by the tabloid newspapers. “The police
have been very clever about placing scare stories in the media,
usually when they are under some sort of pressure,” this expert
suggests. “So you get an inflammatory story – which originates with
the police – about a persistent young offender and how the police
are powerless to act. The tabloids jump up and down about it,
people feel angry and frightened, and because this government is so
wedded to its focus groups and so sensitive to public opinion, they
respond with ever more punitive policy.”

Even if this is only partially true, the government has a problem,
because the public is notoriously ill-informed about youth crime.

The cycle of tabloid hype, public outrage and draconian policy is a
difficult one to break, but there is some hope. A review of
research by independent grant-making body Rethinking Crime and
Punishment found that even the most hardened “lock ’em up and throw
away the key” types were capable of changing their opinion when
they got the facts.2

But has the government’s agenda really changed so fundamentally
since 1997? According to Barry Goldson, senior lecturer in the
sociology department of Liverpool University: “In some respects,
the government’s stance has become less harsh. At the point of the
1997 election there was a clear punitive message around about crime
and young people. It was as if the penal detention of children just
wasn’t seen as a problem. Now the YJB and the government are
back-pedalling over that.”

As evidence, Goldson cites the introduction of performance
indicators for youth offending teams which target a reduction in
the number of young people sent to prison. But why the
back-tracking? “The bottom line,” Goldson suggests, “is that the
detention of something like 3,000 children places an enormous
burden on the treasury.” He adds: “In the final analysis, political
considerations and political posturing are definitely a major force
in the development of policy. There is definite political concern
about being seen as soft on crime – and particularly now the Labour
Party is faced by an opposition led by Michael Howard – a
politician known to believe that prison works.”

“The whole antisocial behaviour discourse is an expression of
that,” Goldson says. “It is an expression of toughness which will
mean equipping agencies to draw in young people who haven’t
committed any offence, in order to subject them to formal

Pam Hibbert, Barnardo’s principal policy officer, agrees that it’s
a mixed picture but is concerned that the government’s remaining
good intentions are being undermined by confusion and blurring of
boundaries. “Prevention services such as family support are
becoming very closely linked to the youth crime agenda, through
things like identification, referral and tracking,” Hibbert says.
“Investing in support for parents and in early intervention
services is absolutely right. But the way into those kinds of
support seems to involve identifying a child as a potential
offender. We shouldn’t be linking preventive and early intervention
work with youth crime.”

Chris Stanley, rehabilitation agency Nacro’s head of youth crime,
believes that policy is becoming more punitive, and cites the
inexorable rise of numbers of children in prison. But he also
believes that some well-intentioned policies have had unexpected
results. He cites the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which introduced
detention and training orders. “Everyone thought – and the courts
agreed – that these were the best things since sliced bread. But
the result was that the courts handed down a lot more custodial
sentences on the basis that offenders would be receiving training
and rehabilitation.”

“One of the fundamental problems with our youth justice system is
that it’s separate from our child welfare system,” Stanley adds.
“If you look at most other European countries, the fact that their
age of criminal responsibility is higher means that if you get into
trouble at 14, you get diverted away from court and down the child
welfare route. You might get mediation, or restorative justice, or
family support services. But, crucially, the response is needs-led.

“These are very effective ways of reducing offending and custody
rates. Last year Finland locked two young offenders up. In Norway
it was 12. These countries seem to manage that without having a
massive surge in youth crime,” he says. “We need to be diverting
children away from the courts, because once they’ve gone into the
criminal justice system, the evidence is that they take a long time
to come out.”

1 Geoff Monaghan, Pam Hibbert,
Sharon Moore, Children in Trouble: Time for Change,

2 Attitudes to Crime &
Punishment: the Results of a Deliberative Poll of Public Opinion.
Rethinking Crime and Punishment, Sept, 2002,

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