Negative Youth Justice: Creating the youth crime ‘problem’

How can we better understand youth offending? In the first instalment of a two-part blog, leading criminologist Professor Steve Case discusses negative youth justice and the impact it’s having, ahead of his Positive Youth Justice seminar on October 20 at CYCJ.

Contemporary youth justice has seriously lost its way. An overview of international youth justice systems indicates a melting pot of strategies, structures, perspectives and interventions often bereft of clear purpose and guiding principles. There is no Occam’s Razor for youth justice, no KISS mentality (keep it simple and straightforward). Instead, we have an amorphous mass of multiple aims and methods desperately lacking consensus, continuity and identity – a bulimic system constantly pursuing improvement (often in the form of increased efficiency) through addition rather than reflection.

The Youth Justice System (YJS) of England and Wales, for example, illustrates a long-term government project that has painted itself into a corner and exhausted ideas for change, although not the compulsion for change. In the process, it has (to some extent at least) manufactured, sustained and exacerbated the very youth crime ‘problem’ it seeks to address.

This blog will explore the reasons for and impact of the negative youth justice that characterises contemporary youth justice systems; a youth justice approach that has sustained and exacerbated the ‘problem’ of youth crime. In my follow-up blog, I’ll offer a progressive solution to the youth crime ‘problem’: Positive Youth Justice.

Creating the youth crime ‘problem’

The concept of ‘youth offending’ is a dynamic social construction – a creation dictated by what society chooses to define as ‘youth’ and ‘offending’ at any given point in time. Explanations of youth offending are influenced by these definitions. Explanations ‘should’ inform response to youth offending (i.e. youth justice). But youth justice is seldom this simple, as I have discovered on my frequent trips out of the ivory tower and into the messy complexity of the youth justice arena. The definitions and explanations of youth offending and the youth justice responses to it often seem to consist of what’s left on the battlefield after frequent clashes between and within political arenas, the media, academia and public opinion. Practice has to pick up the pieces; to make order from the chaos. Competing, contradictory and volatile key stakeholder influences have invented and inflated the extent and nature of youth offending for centuries – creating a ‘problem’ that is allegedly new, increasing and not being solved by current practice, whatever historical period you choose to examine (a recurring theme in youth justice).


In broad terms, the journey to the youth crime ‘problem’ began in the 18th century (post-Industrial Revolution) when society first noticed differences between little adults (children) and adults and so resolved that the ‘child’ should be considered distinct and be treated differently. In the 19th century, the ‘adolescent’ (‘youth’) was identified (largely through the work of positivist criminologists) as an older form of child with physical and psychological differences disposing them to crime. With the creation of the adolescent, offending by (older) children became easier to explain and differentiated responses easier to justify. Society was able to resolve its ambivalence towards ‘normal’ children and offending children through a series of dichotomies:

  • The innocent, vulnerable ‘child’ who seldom offended – the dangerous, irresponsible ‘youth’ more likely to offend;
  • The child as deprived and in need – the youth as depraved and posing risk;
  • The child deserving of care, protection and support (welfare) – the youth requiring control, punishment and reform (justice)

Normal child, problem youth! Our society has perpetually reconciled its various social, political and economic anxieties by projecting them onto a powerless group whose behaviour appears (to adults) to be chaotic and difficult to understand (another recurring theme). The real youth crime ‘problem’ in contemporary youth justice is that we seem to have abolished childhood and detailed consideration of child status for any non-adult who breaks the law. Historically, the age of criminal responsibility has crept incrementally lower and the window of childhood has diminished. Once a child offends, it is as if they immediately become a youth, thus losing their innocence, vulnerability and child status and instantly acquiring the (much over-estimated) maturity, capacity and responsibility of youth. Conflating the child and youth further exacerbates an already exaggerated crime problem by artificially creating more individuals to target, arrest, convict, sentence and respond to with intervention – classic net-widening, classic self-fulfilling prophecy (yet another recurring theme!).

So what can be done about this? I’d like to start by identifying the main offender in this whole damaging process as a means of justifying my proposed solution.

The irony of risk management: The biggest risk to young people in the YJS

The major changes to the YJS introduced by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 were a manufactured response to an invented and inflated problem. When the Labour government was elected in 1997, they targeted youth offending because it was supposedly a new problem (it was neither new nor a problem), it was increasing (it wasn’t) and previous youth justice responses hadn’t worked (they had, but effective approaches like diversion had been abandoned as ‘too soft’ by hard-line Tories). And so the problem was framed – the YJS was costly and failing, indicating that society was costly and failing; children, families and communities likewise. A new approach was needed. Unfortunately for vulnerable children and skilled practitioners, this new approach was pragmatic, centralised and managerialist (heavily-managed – also reflected in Scotland at that time) rather than welfare-focused, justice-based, child friendly or discretionary. It was, in Barry Goldson’s words, a ‘new youth justice’. In order to make the YJS more ‘effective, efficient and economical’, the government prescribed a prevention agenda – no more welfare or justice as priorities. The technical vehicle to pursue this agenda was risk management – assessing and responding to the (predicted, not actualised) risk that children who offend or are assessed as being ‘at risk’ of offending, supposedly present to themselves and others – their risk of offending, reoffending, reconviction or serious harm. Youth and risk became synonymous. Risk became synonymous with danger, threat and irresponsibility. Risk and youth needed to be managed. Two harmful issues emerge:

  • Prediction: Understanding and responding to offending through prevention of predicted risk perpetuates a controlling agenda that criminalises, labels and stigmatises children in the YJS, not to mention ‘responding’ to what they might do in the future, not what they have done. Ethics, rights and due process, anyone?
  • Prescription: Risk management prioritises preventing negative outcomes through prescribed, technical methods, not promoting the positive through supportive and participatory approaches. Practitioner discretion and engaging children, anyone?

Nevertheless, the government nailed its colours to the risk management mast and nothing else would do. Every element of practice was to be obsessively performance managed in pursuit of risk prevention – measured, quantified, inspected, directed and standardised. Soon came ‘National Standards’, ‘Key Performance Indicators’, ‘Key Elements of Effective Practice’ and reams of additional practice guidance, all underpinned by a risk-based, technical, prescriptive model of assessment and intervention. Naturally, this practice guidance is ‘evidence-based’ and proven ‘effective practice’ in the eyes of government. But this is a specious argument because the ‘evidence’ comes from an endless stream of self-fulfilling, repetitive risk factor research studies and experimental, risk-based ‘what works’ interventions – all cohering to form the ‘Risk Factor Prevention Paradigm’ (assess risk, target it through intervention, solve crime).

This paradigm is only one narrow strand of evidence; on the one hand practical, common sense and replicable (i.e. politically appealing), on the other hand incestuous, pseudo-psychological, Americanised, over-simplified and dehumanising. Privileging this model to the relative exclusion of alternatives (e.g. actually talking to children about their experiences and understandings) hamstrings highly experienced and capable practitioners, pigeon holes their understandings, restricts their responses and invalidates their formal understandings of the real lives of the children they work with and are expected to support. There’s a whole other book in that.


However, post-2010 youth justice has also witnessed a re-emergence of positive (arguably principled) practices nationally, thanks largely to a new (coalition) government keen on new approaches (recurring theme alert).  We have welcomed back an emphasis on pre-court diversion and its inevitable (yet similarly welcome) positive effects on diminishing numbers of first-time entrants (FTEs) into the YJS and those receiving custodial sentences – reflecting established trajectories from 2008 onwards. Indeed, FTE and custody rates in England and Wales are at their lowest levels since YOTs began in 2000. Whether this progressive evolution has resulted from economic and practical necessities (likely) or considered, principled reflection (less likely) is moot, but it is a welcome reality.

The pursuit of a newer ‘new youth justice’?

Yet the identity crisis of the YJS remains. Progressive measures and highly encouraging statistics have been downplayed/overlooked by an even newer version of the new (2015) Conservative government (now with Theresa May as Prime Minister and Liz Truss as Justice Secretary) keen to make their mark by ‘doing something’ about youth offending (recurring theme). We have further ruthless economic cuts to the budgets of the Youth Justice Board and YOTs, who are now expected to achieve the same impressive results with less (victims of their own success?). These same (ostensibly successful) stakeholders have been subjected to a review by proxy; the Charlie Taylor review of the (ostensibly successful) YJS to find ‘new’ ways of dealing with the (invented and inflated) youth crime ‘problem’. Thus, we have the paradox of reviewing an apparently successful system to identify more effective ways of working. A cynic may view this review as motivated more at least by four political, not principled, rationale:

1) wilful government misinterpretation of reoffending statistics (diminishing in number but not percentage);

2) the need to justify further financial cuts;

3) government desire to increasingly subsume the Youth Justice Board into their full control (within the Ministry of Justice);

4) the standard new government push to put their own spin on youth justice practice and to claim credit for any continued successes.

The result, however, is another directionless government perpetuating a directionless YJS – with children and practitioners left to fend for themselves with constantly changing guidance and diminishing resources.

Principled practice by stealth?

So where does that leave us? Political, administrative, media and economic expedience and self-serving agendas in the 21st century have superseded the need to fully consider the child and the realities of their life, wherein offending is just one part of a broader complex. Less ‘children first’ and more children nowhere.

The most troubling aspect of this situation is the absence of explicit, consistent principles from contemporary youth justice practice in this modern obsession to manage, measure and control. Where have these practice principles gone – have they been rejected, lost, forgotten, underestimated, deliberately marginalised? We are left with a YJS that has lost its identity, values, purpose, empathy and connection with its key stakeholders – children, practitioners (from youth offending teams/YOTs) and policy makers (from local authorities, from the resourceful and expert Youth Justice Board expected to guide and manage the YJS). Crucially, however, these key stakeholders haven’t lost their values or their connection with one another. Principled, progressive, positive youth justice practice is visible locally across England and Wales, often as a bolt-on to or mediated version of governmental practice requirements, or as innovative under the radar wheeler dealing where practice is untested.


The fact that there is a wealth of positive practice that sustains and expands across the United Kingdom (e.g. diversion, restorative justice, YOT-police and YOT-university partnerships, participatory mechanisms) is testament to the expertise and values of key stakeholders and their overriding desire for positive outcomes for children who offend. Therefore, all is not lost in our ambition for a positive youth justice. The groundwork has been done and the appetite is there, as is the personnel and (some of the) processes. The government wants a new direction, the YJS needs a new direction. This new direction needs to be ‘evidence-based’, but the government has privileged the collection of risk-based evidence to the relative exclusion of evidencing alternatives, certainly until the recent inception of AssetPlus, which marks a significant government retreat from their traditional risk obsession, but not from excessive managerialism.

We appear to have a Catch 22, until we remember the innovative and motivated key stakeholders across the YJS who pursue progressive youth justice practice on a daily basis. Enter Positive Youth Justice: Children First, Offenders Second.

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