The past few weeks have seen a moral panic being stirred up in the press following a number of horrendous crimes involving knives and guns committed by children.
I want to focus on current government policy in the area of youth justice. Where are we going wrong and what are the solutions?
Britain is at the bottom of the league table for child welfare in Europe and fails to satisfy the minimum requirements of the United Nations (UN) convention on the rights of the child.
A recent study conducted by the London School of Economics found that the US and Britain are at the bottom of the table with the lowest levels of social mobility – and while the US is stable, Britain is declining.
Britain has been criticised by both the UN and the Council for Europe for the large numbers of children we lock up – the highest in Europe.
Criminologists Barry Goldson and John Muncie argue that British youth justice policy has 'precipitated system expansion on an industrial scale, giving rise to one of the most punitive juvenile penal systems in the industrialised democratic world'. More specifically, the youngsters targeted by recent policies are taken from the most disadvantaged sections of society.
The Smart Justice campaign website informs us, 'Of those in custody and of school age, over one in four has literacy and numeracy levels of an average seven year old. Over half of under 18s have been in care and almost half have been permanently been excluded from school.
'Of prisoners aged 16-29, around 85 percent show signs of a personality disorder and 10 percent exhibit signs of psychotic illness such as schizophrenia.
'Over half of 16-20 year olds who are locked up say they were dependent on drugs or alcohol in the year prior to imprisonment. One in three girls have been subjected to sexual abuse, and one in four have experienced violence at home.'
Current government policy has led to a situation where child jails act as holding pens for the most poverty stricken, mentally ill, illiterate and abused children in our society.
While academics, politicians, NGOs and even the Youth Justice Board are aware of the disastrous situation that British youth justice policy has led to, the public is widely thought to see things differently. This propaganda is perpetrated through the British tabloids.
Youth justice policy encourages the criminalisation of children at the expense of meeting their needs.
It focuses on managing 'risk' and hitting targets which have perverse consequences. Tinkering with a system that is inherently flawed will have little effect. We need a fundamental overhaul.
Some steps that have been suggested to effect radical change include:
- Banning the imprisonment of children under the age of 18
- Raising the age of criminal responsibility
- Encouraging diversion into positive activities and focusing on strengths and skills
- Investing in preventative solutions including meeting mental health and educational needs
- Holding a Royal Commission into the state of the youth justice system in England and Wales
- Discouraging political kneejerk reactions
- Tackling the negative perceptions and demonisation of young people
Possibly the most important and effective change we could make is reducing poverty and inequality.
The problem is not that we do not know what to do, it's that the solutions are not politically salient at this time. The problem, therefore, is how we convince politicians and the public that the punishment of abused and ill children will not heal them, and that solutions will not be found without a reduction in levels of inequality.
As Goldson and Muncie make clear, 'Ultimately, what is required is the conceptual and institutional decriminalisation of social need.'
Zoe Davies is a policy and research associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies and is co-editor of the book Debating Youth Justice: From Punishment to Problem Solving which is available to download at » www.kcl.ac.uk/depsta/rel/ccjs/
She has previously worked with disaffected young people within both an education welfare services and youth offending teams.