Thursday, October 19, 2006

Kangaroo youth justice

Some more extraordinary ideas from the Home Office:

Home Office ministers are considering giving the police the power to impose restrictions on young people's behaviour if they admit to a crime, rather than sending them to court.

At present the police can give offenders who have committed certain offences a final warning, or a fine, rather than sending them to court. But the Government is considering introducing a conditional warning, which would allow a young person to avoid court if they agree to change their behaviour.

The Youth Courts Committee of the Magistrates' Association is concerned about the proposals, which it argues could pressure innocent young people to admit guilt to avoid a court appearance, and place too much power in the hands of the police.

The overt rationale is that contact with the criminal justice system has been shown to have a strongly negative effect on youth offending. For example, the Edinburgh University study: 'Youth Transitions and Crime' found that one of the most powerful predictors of whether a young person continued to commit offences beyond the age of 17 (rather than ceasing spontaneously) was whether they had entered the system.

Current thinking seems to be that young people should be kept out of court for as long as possible, and therefore giving the police more and more powers to dispense justice will do the trick. But that doesn't really stack up: a criminal justice system is the same thing even if you rename it 'sausage'.

Simply giving to the police (or anyone else, for that matter) the powers that should be reserved to courts, and discouraging children from exercising their right to a fair and impartial hearing (Art 6 ECHR) doesn't make any difference: they are still being dealt with in a criminal justice system. In fact, as the Magistrates' Association points out, it makes it (a) more likely that children will admit to things they haven't done, or to which they have perfectly reasonable defence, just to get it over with, and (b) less likely that those who really do need some support will get help from the Youth Offending Team.

If the Home Office is really concerned about limiting youth offending, a good start would be to accept the mounting evidence that children and young teenagers tend to do things that are forbidden (nowadays by an increasing range of restrictive and badly-drafted statutes) and that, if left alone, they tend to grow out of it within a few years. Perhaps we could have a realistic age of criminal responsibility back - having the lowest age in Western Europe isn't anything to be proud of, and it's certainly proving to be pretty counter-productive.

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