Lessons from Europe: from Spain’s ‘model prison’ to Will Cornick

David Orr discusses the sentencing of Will Cornick for the murder of Ann Maguire against the context of Spain’s progressive approach to youth justice. Controversial – or common sense? Read on to decide:

Over the course of the last fortnight I have been affected strongly by two very different stories relating to juvenile justice in Europe. One filled me with hope, the other despair.

Let’s start with the positive. In The Guardian last weekend Eric Allison and Simon Hattenstone’s fascinating piece Tough love: is this a model prison for children? provided an insight into life in the La Zarza re-educational centre in the Murcia region of Spain. Operated by not-for-profit organisation Diagrama, it is home to 61 young men and women under the age of eighteen who have committed offences from murder to armed robbery. Setting aside the fact that “model prison for children” is arguably an oxymoron the piece highlighted how attitudes in Spain towards children and young people in conflict with the law have shifted. Before 1992 “Spain locked up children in similar conditions to adults”. After 1992, “a law was passed requiring the juvenile justice system to operate according to international rules and standards on children’s rights. The understanding was that if children were going to be jailed, they would also have to be nurtured, educated and rehabilitated”.

Having opened its first re-education centre 23 years ago, Diagrama is now responsible for running the majority of Spain’s juvenile justice facilities. How many juvenile suicides have occurred on its sites in that period? None. Not one. This struck me as a truly remarkable statistic but perhaps that is because my view has been skewed by the relentless tales of youth self-harm, suicide and tragic loss of life in prisons and detention centres across the United Kingdom. In trying to account for this discrepancy, the authors of the piece identify one obvious distinction between Spain and the U.K. and it is a biggie – philosophy. “In Britain, the children tend to be regarded as inmates. Here [Spain], they are always children. In Britain, a good day is one without violence or disturbance. Here, a good day is one when the children have learned well and made progress”.

From the heart of the Murcian countryside to a bleak Crown Court in Leeds

At the start of this month the young man responsible for the murder of his teacher Ann Maguire in April 2013 was sentenced to life imprisonment with a requirement that he serve a minimum of 20 years in custody. The offence committed when he was 15 was a horrendous, unprovoked and violent attack that led to the tragic loss of a respected and much loved educator with some 40 years of service. When he initially appeared in Court last year a reporting restriction was put in place preventing his name and image being used in the media. However, Mr Justice Coulson in passing sentence on November 3, 2014 saw fit to revoke that restriction. So it was that perpetrator Will Cornick’s name and face adorned newspapers, magazines, blogs and social media. Described by his defence barrister as a “deeply disturbed young man”, the prosecution suggested Cornick suffered from “adjustment disorder with psychopathic tendencies”.

What might have become of Will Cornick had he committed his offence in Spain? Firstly, it seems unlikely that we, the public, would know him as anything other than Boy A. “Boy” because that is what he would have been when he committed the crime – a child. Indeed, that is also what he would have been at the point of sentencing at age 16 – a child. Secondly, how might his fortunes have differed in the Spanish custodial setting as opposed to the British? One would assume that his chances of being doused with scalding sugary tea or seriously assaulted and left at risk of disfigurement would have been a good deal lower. That is the kind of treatment that one can expect as a high profile hate figure in the British custodial estate. It is the fate that befell Ian Huntley before he committed suicide. One imagines it would be that bit more difficult to begin the hard work of facing up to one’s crime and maybe, just maybe, moving on to a point where rehabilitation and desistance become possibilities, when everyone recognises you from his copy of The Sun. Thirdly, his sentence would have looked rather different. To return to Spain briefly: “Between 14 and 16, the maximum sentence a child can receive is four years, irrespective of the crime; between 16 and 18, it’s eight years. If children are sentenced before they are 18, they serve all their sentence in re-education centres”.

Mr Justice Coulson justified his decision to name Will Cornick on the basis that “public shaming” would serve a “clear deterrent effect”. Predicting a backlash, he anticipated that “ill-informed commentators might scoff”. Well, I guess that places me squarely in the ill-informed commentator category then and scoff I will. The real driver for releasing Cornick’s name and image seems to have been the need to feed the media beast. Coulson did note that “public interest” had been “huge”. There is a very significant difference though between “huge public interest” in a case and it being “in the public interest” for information about a case to be shared. The Guardian bears some responsibility here as well. Ironically, despite carrying informative pieces on Spanish juvenile justice it was one of the very papers demanding the right to report Cornick’s name! The wrong-headed “logic” of Coulson does not end here. He wishes to deter others from acting in a similar fashion to Cornick. Cornick’s offence was the kind of extreme, highly unpredictable, outlier event that occurs (mercifully) once in a blue moon. Did that influence Coulson’s thinking at any stage? Does he seriously imagine that another young person in a similar frame of mind to Cornick with a similar psychological profile would be deterred from committing an equally heinous crime by dint of this kind of media coverage and the prospect of public shaming? If only risk assessment, risk management and intervention were that straightforward. Coulson’s position seems to reflect a fundamental lack of understanding about issues of attachment and trauma which play a part in shaping the future behaviour of young men like Cornick. Ann Maguire was clearly a cherished member of the school community and will be loved and missed dearly by her family and those who knew her. Cornick’s act was inexcusable. He needs the best possible professional support to ensure that he never poses the same kind of risk to anyone else ever again.

When a young person under the age of 18 is responsible for the perpetration of a serious crime, whether violent or sexual, and is duly sentenced to custody, I am yet to be convinced of the value of personal information about that young person being shared in the public domain. Does it help to reduce future offending behaviour? Does it make that young person’s reintegration into his/her community at the point when the custodial element of the sentence has been served safer and more straightforward? On ethical grounds it is not possible to conduct a Randomised Control Trial to provide answers to these questions, but I suspect that public vilification and stigmatisation do little to propel change for the better. It is for the sheriff or judge to pass sentence in the case of serious offences perpetrated by children and young people as opposed to sentence being handed down via the Court of public opinion. Sentencing aims to serve different functions depending on the offence: from deterrence (individual and general) to retribution (“just desserts”) to rehabilitation and restriction/incapacitation. When it comes to reporting restrictions, certain media outlets seem to comply with the letter of the law but not its spirit. While restrictions will often be in place when a young person is being sentenced in relation to a serious offence, that young person appears to become fair game on his release to the community, as this recent article in The Sunday Post highlights.

Perhaps it is time for our justice system to become more restorative in the way that it operates to try to ensure that victims and their families feel less aggrieved and unsatisfied with the process, and that journalists learn to appreciate their own social responsibilities when it comes to supporting desistance and reintegration in children and young people who commit serious offences but who do need to return to their communities to try to rebuild their lives. Maybe we could learn a little from our European neighbours?

About our blogger

David Orr is a Practice Development Advisor seconded from Edinburgh Young People’s Service (YPS). Read more.

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