Understanding the costs of youth justice

Even if you’re neither victim nor perpetrator, the costs of youth justice affect us all. Debbie Nolan and Charlotte Morris report back from CYCJ’s recent event on why children who offend are often those most offended against, and the importance of never giving up.

CYCJ is now in its fourth year of participating in Engage with Strathclyde. This annual week invites people from outwith the University to find out more what we do, our research and practical applications through knowledge exchange. This has always been a great opportunity for us to reach a broader audience and engage in wider discussion and debate. So when the chance arose to participate again this year, naturally, we jumped at it!

In planning this year’s input, we wanted to draw on the knowledge, skills and experience of the Improving Life Chances Implementation Group, which was set up as part of the Scottish Government’s Youth Justice Strategy and project managed by CYCJ. By selecting the Costs of Youth Justice as a theme, the event linked nicely with the group’s work on the theme of victims and community confidence.

Representatives from third sector organisations, the legal profession, Police Scotland, education, social work, secure care, the Scottish Prison Service and the Children’s Hearings System, came together to hear from four organisations – and four perspectives – on the costs of youth justice. Dr Gillian Henderson (SCRA) kicked off, talking to the research recently completed to inform the advisory group on the minimum age of criminal responsibility on the Backgrounds and outcomes for children aged 8 to 11 years referred to the Children’s Reporter for offending.

Despite having read this report numerous times, the power of the findings still blow us away, with Gillian posing the important question: are these young people victims or perpetrators? Although the numbers of 8 to 11 year olds referred on such grounds are low, of the 100 cases sampled in this research having been referred in 2013-14, the levels of adversity and multiple risks experienced by these children was startling. Most had previously been referred to the Reporter on lack of parental care or victim of schedule one offence grounds and 26% were already subject to compulsory measures. For the 37 children where the offence was part of a pattern of behaviour, this was even more pronounced, with 70% also experiencing educational concerns, 43% mental health problems and 81% had parents who presented risks to them.

So, victim or perpetrator? The input concluded that young children who have committed offences are often victims of abuse or neglect and exposed to risks in their homes/from their parents. They are clearly more in need of protection than to be criminalised. During the panel discussion, the importance of language and the possibility of using “person harmed” and “person responsible” as in restorative justice (RJ) was posed, as was the question of how the above information can be disseminated more widely and utilised to inform public and political discourse?

This was followed by two helpful inputs focusing predominantly on what happens when we don’t meet the needs of children to address their offending behaviour. Michael Shanks from Includem challenged us to think about what we wanted to be when we were 10 years old (unsurprisingly,  social worker for Debbie -and a firefighter for Charlotte, er…). Yet for many of the young people Includem work with, thinking into the future and adulthood is impossible as all their resources are invested in just surviving each day.  Next, Joe Byers (Moving On project Action for Children) challenged us further to think about why ceasing offending is hard and to consider how we would manage with being asked to lose our reputation, sense of belonging, acceptance, relationships, and activities developed over a lifetime? This is often what we  ask young people to do in desisting from offending, not to mention the range of other associated pressures including family connections, financial stresses, peer pressure and the fear of trying something new, with pains of desistance often too difficult to overcome. In supporting young people, both inputs highlighted the vital role of:

  • Looking beyond the presenting behaviour to see the needs underpinning this
  • Recognising these young people are still children no matter what behaviours they are involved in, each young person is an individual and that no young person is beyond help
  • Developing and maintaining relationships based on trust, respect and honesty, and stickability
  • Early intervention at all stages of the journey
  • Removing barriers to desistance and recognising the need to replace losses and provide new opportunities
  • Aiding young people who are transitioning from services
  • Supporting young people to develop the aspiration, self-esteem, hope, resilience, protective factors, positive networks and skills that they will require beyond the involvement of services to make change sustainable and that everyone needs to be part of this

Last but not least, Scott Khalil (Sacro) discussed the role of restorative justice in addressing the costs of youth justice. This highlighted the dissatisfaction victims often experience with retributive justice and the potential for restorative justice to provide a response that is more balanced, inclusive, reparative, empowering and effective in meeting the needs of the person harmed and person responsible for that harm, which can also reduce future harm by reducing reoffending.  Yet the availability of restorative justice  in Scotland continues to vary, in spite of the clear evidence base, and some of the arguments put forward against it were countered in this input, with Scott concluding:

“If you keep doing what you’ve always have, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always had” (Every restorative justice proponent ever!)

Throughout the inputs, the monetary savings that can be achieved through intervention was highlighted. This resulted in a wider discussion about how such savings can be used to promote the sustainability of (often preventative) services and distributed more appropriately throughout the system. This left us pondering another question regarding whether youth justice was indeed a victim of its own success, a blog for another day….

We left the event with a real sense of the importance of the person, the value of relating what we know to ourselves, and in working with young people asking – why are we not involved in offending, if we were how easy would it be to stop, what made/would make the difference for us, and how can we be that difference, not just in our professional capacity but as a member of the public in the community we live?

About our bloggers

Debbie Nolan is a Practice Development Advisor with CYCJ, whilst Charlotte Morris is comms lead (and definitely not a firefighter).

Image courtesy of Dr Seuss via Includem

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Children's and Young People's Centre for Justice
University of Strathclyde
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