More alike than different

Debbie Nolan reflects back from a European wide seminar on how, regardless of different backgrounds, we are all responding to the same needs of young people involved in offending, and working towards the same goals.

On June 6 and 7, I had the privilege of facilitating two workshops at the Confederation of European Probation International Seminar on Working with Juveniles and Young Adult offenders. In the beautiful setting of the Centre for Legal Studies and Specialized Training in Barcelona, psychologists, social workers, researchers and probation officers from across Europe came together to share good practice in responding to the unique needs of these young people.

My workshop on The Whole System Approach to Youth Justice in Scotland: Responding to Complexity and Lessons Learned, which was co-facilitated by Ellen van Kaleen who provided An Insight into the Work of a Juvenile Judge and a Dutch Investigation Judge, proved popular. Across the workshop and the entirety of the conference, what I was most struck by was that while our accents, the jurisdictions we came from, and the systems within which we worked may have differed, the themes and challenges that emerged were very alike.

Antonio Andrés Pueyo (University of Barcelona) opened the conference, recognising that youth crime is a universal, developmental phenomenon, and concluding that 18-25 year olds are often more similar to their child counterparts than to adults in terms of functioning and development. This was returned to by Anne Lill Ørbeck (Dikemark Psychiatric Hospital) who provided the science of brain maturation, highlighting the importance of, and opportunities provided by, adolescence as a second major developmental spurt, within which risk-taking and disinhibition is normal and adaptive. She identified five processes which distinguish adolescence from adults: risk assessment; time perspectives; the impact of emotions and rewards on cognition and decision-making; sensation seeking, self-control and impulsivity; and peer influences. While no-one disagreed with the importance of considering psychosocial maturity and shifting away from a preoccupation with chronological age, questions were raised about how, and who, should assess maturity, as well as how other professionals, most critically those working within adult services and the judiciary, could be supported to understand the rationale behind this and to change practice based upon this understanding.

There was much discussion about the work of the T2A Alliance and JCFJ in highlighting the needs of young adults, and the additional training afforded to the judiciary working with young people in other areas, often accompanied with legislative discretion to adopt a similar approach based on maturity, not age. Is this an area where Scotland could go further? And how can we best use the opportunities available to us, such as community justice developments and the review of sentencing guidelines by the Scottish Sentencing Council, to achieve this?

The need to adopt a holistic approach and the often duality of status as victim and perpetrator was consistently reiterated. Unsurprisingly, educational experiences, mental health difficulties, deprivation, substance misuse, trauma, bereavement and loss, parenting and attachment featured heavily. Significant attention was also devoted to experiences of bullying and cyberbullying, as well as the importance of understanding young people’s perceptions of bullying. Throughout these discussions the experiences of marginalisation, isolation and exclusion, as well as identity issues were prevalent, as was the duality of youth offending as a perceived means of addressing, but also often contributing to, these issues.

While Tine Fuglsang (Ministry of Justice, Denmark) provided an overview of Danish longitudinal and annual research, combining official and self-report data in respect of youth offending, it became clear that issues with the availability of youth specific data were not unique to Scotland, nor was the decline in offending by young people. What followed were a number of familiar discussions about how such a focus on the reducing numbers masked an increase in the complexity and needs of those young people “in the system” but also brought implications in terms of resourcing, the failure to reinvest financial savings elsewhere in the system in prevention, short-term funding of services creating sustainability issues and the loss of services, knowledge and specialist skills.

Atte Oksanen’s (University of Tampere) input on the role of the online world in the idealisation of severe targeted violence and that of Junko Nozawa (Global Centre on Cooperative Security) on rehabilitating juvenile violent extremist offenders in detention made for compelling listening. In discussing the comparatively small numbers of young people who are involved in mass shootings and terrorism or terror-related activity, but where the concern and potential harm is high, the importance of adopting a proportional response was again stressed, alongside the recognition that “no child is born extremist”. The themes of vulnerability, exclusion, victimisation and identity were again prevalent, as was the inescapable use of, but risks associated with, social media.

Minimum Age of Criminal Responsibility (MACR) was the issue we couldn’t get away from! In various inputs, the differing MACR across representative countries (not to mention the gender differences in this in Iran) were highlighted, with a range of questions raised about the UK position. Even in countries where the age was already higher, it was clear this was an issue under ongoing review -namely to increase the age further. More widely this discussion highlighted the challenges of gaining an accurate understanding of public opinion and in developing community confidence -a challenge that feels pertinent in Scotland at the current time.

I left the Conference feeling both saddened and heartened. We are all facing similar challenges and have not missed some silver bullet that could solve all, or any, of the above issues, but likewise the scope and enthusiasm for sharing learning, good practice, and different approaches and initiatives was overwhelmingly evident. Perhaps the ultimate challenge is – how can we work together across countries, policies and cultures to get it right for young adult offenders?

About our blogger

Debbie Nolan is a Practice Development Associate with CYCJ. She’s passionate about children and young people achieving their best possible outcomes. Read more.

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