The government are pressurising courts to deal harshly with those involved in the August Riots. This is a populist move that is unhelpful to youth justice. When it comes to our criminal youth, we need better community service schemes, rehabilitation and restoration, argues Olivia Jackson.
As the dust settles after the riots and the magistrates and judges work overtime to process the sudden surge in defendants, the headlines detailing who received which sentence for what crime are rife, as are the arguments in favour of harsh punitive measures, lenient treatment, more understanding, less understanding and so on. The Ministry of Justice tells us that the prison population is rising by more than 100 inmates per day. Many of those convicted are under 18, or at least under 21, falling into the ‘youth’ or ‘young adult’ categories of the criminal justice system. For those sentenced to custodial sentences the question must be asked: is this the best way to deal with their behaviour and prevent reoffending, or does it merely satisfy the public’s thirst for vengeance and the politicians’ need to be seen as tough on crime?
Amidst the rhetoric of young people ‘getting away with crime’, England and Wales lock up proportionally more children than any other Western nations apart from the USA, and has one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in the world. Our treatment of young offenders has grown steadily more punitive since the relative liberalism of the Thatcher years. Yes, I used ‘liberalism’ and ‘Thatcher’ in the same sentence. That may sound like an oxymoron, but it was Douglas Hurd as Home Secretary who pointed out that “prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse”. His successor, Michael Howard, took the line of appeasing populist sentiments with his “prison works” approach, and successive Home Secretaries have since sought to out-tough one another, with young offenders the target of ever more punitive policies. The youth custody figures more than tripled from 1991-2006. Interesting, then, that actual youth offending rates fell following Thatcher’s decarcerative policy and rose steadily from Howard to Jack Straw, with only a slight drop-off at the end of 2009.
Eleven times more money is spent on youth incarceration than crime prevention, with a year’s incarceration for one young person costing up to £140,000. These figures are a shocking indictment of a modern, relatively wealthy nation, more especially so given that the evidence suggests that where sentences are community-based, the recidivism rate is far lower. Quite apart from our atrocious treatment of children as young as 10, it just doesn’t make sense economically: why are we spending this amount on treatment/punishment which doesn’t work, rather than the considerably cheaper, more effective option of robust crime prevention?
One reason is that local authorities currently fund community sentences but not custodial sentences. If they were to fund both, this would stop them using incarceration as a cheap option which gives them some respite from troublesome young people. It would also promote the use of effective community sentences, keeping children near their families, and provide more incentive and money for good crime prevention strategies. In the long run this would save millions of pounds and much grief in damage control.
When children offend, there is public and media outcry about ‘feral’ children, even the ‘spawn of Satan’ (that from the Times in 1991), often prompting reactionary policy changes in Parliament and, as we see this week, knee-jerk sentences in court. We seem to prefer this approach to carefully thought-through reforms which place the best interests of those involved at the centre, including the victims: how do prison sentences for perpetrators constructively serve those whose property has been left in ashes? Policies must be made using solid analysis rather than populist sentiment.
We also need to take a long, hard look at the inside of our Youth Offender Institutions and what they produce. In England and Wales in 2010 there were over 2000 children in custody at any one time. Over a quarter had not been convicted: they were on remand, and many of those were subsequently acquitted or given a community sentence. Young black people are more likely to be refused bail than whites, regardless of crime. Half of those who do receive custodial sentences are sentenced for nonviolent crimes: they are not dangerous individuals.
Research paper after research paper, some commissioned and then ignored by the Home Office, shows that one of the primary factors in preventing youth crime is strong family and community ties, yet we fail to invest in these from the earliest years, and then add to the problem by sending young people to institutions far from home, which make the fragile ties impossible to maintain: they are released worse off than when they went in.
Inside, young people are left locked in their cells for 17 hours a day – up to 22 on weekends. Sports facilities are unused, education is scanty, bullying and boredom rife. Mental health problems abound and the suicide and self-harm rates dwarf those of the average population. Some institutions lack enough access to showers; in others, young people are forced to urinate into a plastic bag, in public, rather than allowed to use toilets. How on earth does this constructively punish and seek to reform already damaged people?
Dr Frances Crook, Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, condemned this treatment of young people and its inefficiency, saying, “We keep children smelly and dirty, idle and frightened, bored with education and cooped up in modern-day dungeons. And we expect them miraculously to pupate into responsible citizens.” But the statistics tell us that 75-90% of young people incarcerated before the age of 18 go on to reoffend within 2 years of release.
All this despite the fact that one child is killed and countless thousands abused every week by adults, which barely makes news or causes policy decisions at all. Somehow we are far more ready to condemn young people than the adults who shape their lives. I’m all for punishment where it is due, but I can’t stand double standards, and think we need to pay heed to our statutory duty to proportionality in sentencing (also instituted under Thatcher).
Ultimately the current approach cannot bring true justice to either victims or perpetrators: the riots show it cannot even manage crime or control potential criminals. Justice Secretary Ken Clarke hoped his prisons and sentencing Green Paper, Breaking the Cycle, would reduce the prison population by 3,000. This would be a win-win situation: robust community sentences, cheaper punishment, more emphasis on rehabilitation and restoration which prevents reoffending. Alongside Iain Duncan-Smith’s (out of office) suggestions that we invest heavily in making sure infants form healthy attachments to at least one parent, this sounds like a use of my tax payments and yours which achieve a much more holistic justice to both victims and perpetrators.
Sadly the surge in prison sentences following the riots may achieve just the opposite. But they keep a vengeful (voting) public happy. Yet another reason to bring back Thatcherism.