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Youth justice in the UK: children, young people and crime
Youth justice in the UK: children, young people and crime

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3 Diversion

As the youth justice system grew in size and complexity in England and Wales after the ambitious reforms introduced by the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, the numbers of young people sucked into the system mushroomed dramatically. The good intentions of delivering more consistent interventions based on research evidence developed into bad outcomes for many children. New custodial institutions had to be built and old ones expanded to hold the growing number of young people in custody.

Research evidence mounted up to show that contact with the criminal justice system was itself ‘criminogenic’ – that is, it created more crime. In contrast, diversionary practices – the third of our four principles underpinning youth justice integrity – that seek to point children and young people away from prosecution have been shown to have radically reduced the size of the youth custody population and the caseloads of youth justice staff. In the decade from 2007–8 to 2016–17 there was an 85 per cent reduction in the numbers of children entering the youth justice system. In the period from 2010–11, when austerity was introduced, to 2017–18 the annual budget of the Youth Justice Board fell by 72 per cent from £452.3 million to £126.6 million (Case and Haines, 2020). It seems that by reducing the machinery of youth justice by diverting children away to other services or declining to prosecute them, can have less harmful outcomes than maintaining a larger youth justice system.

Setting up comprehensive, universal and socially engaging support for children and young people, as proposed in the second principle, reinforces one of the most basic ‘facts of crime’, which is that most people grow out of it if they are given the chance. This isn’t to say offending and harmful behaviour should be ignored but that avoiding prosecution and encouraging social support is likely to be more effective. Lesley McAra’s (2015) study of young people in Edinburgh is one of the most methodologically robust studies of young people’s offending behaviour of recent times. It showed that 96 per cent of the 4,300 young people involved in the study reported committing a criminal offence between the ages of 11 and 24. Crime of one kind or another is normal among young people, but relatively short-lived for most of them. In her study, 56 per cent had desisted by the age of 18, and 90 per cent by the age of 24. Most of these children and young people had no contact with either formal criminal justice or welfare processes. They grew out of crime.

Activity 3 Diversion ahead

Timing: Allow 5 minutes

Below is an extract from the National Association of Youth Justice’s ‘Manifesto for Youth Justice’ (NAYJ, 2015). Some of the words have been removed from the statement supporting their proposal about diversion. Complete the sentences using the drop-down options.

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As you will remember from Session 1, raising the age at which children can be prosecuted for committing a crime would be the single most effective form of diversion. Countries that have raised the age, or already have a higher age, show no signs of negative consequences or a desire to lower the age. The NAYJ recommend in their manifesto ‘a considerable rise in the minimum age of criminal responsibility and immunity from prosecution’. Diversion involves making alternatives to criminal prosecution more widely available.

The argument for diversion is based on evidence that while nearly all children commit some kind of crime at some stage in their young life, most will grow out of it and learn to know better (Goldson and Muncie, 2008; Muncie, 2014; Rutherford, 1987). Diversion does not mean that nothing is done when children behave badly or indulge in destructive and harmful behaviour. Diversion is based on the recognition that criminal justice and the criminal law are blunt and potentially harmful instruments to deal with such behaviour, and that other tools could and should be used. This is the kind of thinking and the kind of practice you look at next.