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Youth justice: tough on punishment, soft on the causes of crime, says researcher


Police, magistrates and Youth Offending Teams feel that they have little choice than to hand out harsher punishments for young offenders despite the government’s emphasis on tackling the underlying causes of their criminal behaviour, new research has revealed.

A senior police officer has told researchers from the University of Bath that parts of the youth justice system work against each other in ways that disadvantage young offenders and keep them on the path to re-offending.

Initial results of the two-year study of decision making in youth justice in Britain will be revealed at the Doing Youth Justice conference in London next week (6 April 2006).

Dr Jo Phoenix, from the University’s Department of Social and Policy Sciences, has been studying how young offenders are assessed for welfare needs and the risk they pose to society.

She says that despite an emphasis in government policy on dealing with the reasons behind youth crime, in practical terms police youth offending teams and magistrates have no option but to enforce increasingly punitive measures.

“The 1998 legislation which gave birth to ASBOs and Youth Offending Teams was supposed to create a youth justice system in which those in needs of punishment were punished but which would also help those with welfare issues to escape a life of criminality,” said Dr Phoenix.

“What we have today is a youth justice system that metes out increasingly stringent punishments on young offenders and fast-tracks them through harsher and harsher punishments.

“Information on the desperate welfare needs of young offenders is available to all those who make decisions about young offenders – police, Youth Offending Teams and magistrates - but in practice they have only punitive measures at their disposal.

“The fact that young offenders are first and foremost young, seems to be of little consequence in our youth justice system.”

As part of her research, Dr Phoenix has analysed case files, carried out court observations and interviewed over 100 youth justice practitioners – including police, magistrates, Youth Offending Team workers and young offenders themselves.

“The overwhelming common denominator amongst the majority of young offenders is poverty; poverty which has introduced them to homelessness, alcohol abuse, drug abuse and crime from a very early age,” said Dr Phoenix.

“Once they become involved in the youth justice system, state interventions are inevitably focused on some of their emotional difficulties rather than their practical needs. Anger management classes are no substitution for attempting to do something about their home situation.

“How young people understand their own lives is almost always excluded from consideration of criminal justice despite the emphasis on engagement and inclusion.

“As a result, many of the young offenders that I have interviewed have told me that they feel they are damned if they comply with the wishes of the court and damned if they don’t.”

The Doing Youth Justice conference will take place on Thursday 6 April in London and will be one of the first to bring academics and youth justice workers together to discuss the entire spectrum of youth justice.

Speakers include: Prof. Rod Morgan, Chair of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales, Spike Cadman, Senior Policy Officer, NACRO, Prof John Muncie, Open University and Dr Jo Phoenix, University of Bath.

Members of the media are welcome to attend the conference.

Andrew McLaughlin | alfa
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