Still too punitive

The children’s hearing system in Scotland has important lessons for
the handling of youth justice across the UK. When we said in this
column before Christmas (4 December) that years of attempting to
change the culture of the youth justice system in England and Wales
had had a marginal impact, we were criticised by the Youth Justice
Board chairperson Sir Charles Pollard.

We would not deny that the YJB and youth offending teams have been
working hard for change, not least through the intensive
supervision and surveillance programmes introduced as an
alternative to custody, whatever their success in achieving this
objective. But we stand by our belief that the youth justice system
south of the border remains punitive in its general outlook. The
shift from punishment to rehabilitation is happening only slowly.

As a new report published by NCH Scotland reminds us, children’s
hearings were established with the express purpose of taking young
people out of the adult criminal process with a view to
rehabilitation and care rather than punishment and retribution.
Where’s Kilbrandon Now? rightly suggests the hearings can,
if their full potential is realised, offer “the most humane and
effective response to the distressing problem of children in
trouble”, not least because they provide a multi-agency,
information-sharing approach in an atmosphere conducive to the
child’s participation.

The punitive model became entrenched in England and Wales partly
because successive home secretaries, both Tory and Labour, were
sympathetic to Michael Howard’s infamous view that “prison works”.
Even the relatively enlightened Criminal Justice Act 1991 failed to
put the brakes on what had already become a penal youth justice

The NCH Scotland report, the title of which recalls the 1964
Kilbrandon inquiry which led to the setting up of children’s
hearings, cites research by Barry Goldson at the University of
Liverpool reporting an 800 per cent increase over 10 years in the
number of 12-14 year olds in custody in England and Wales. The
corresponding increase for under-18s was 100 per cent, including a
400 per cent increase in girls. The overall numbers have at last
begun to fall, but the reoffending and suicide rates among young
people in prison confirm the need to quicken the pace of progress.

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