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

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

5 Abolishing youth justice, championing children’s rights

The deflation of the youth justice system established in 1998 by the New Labour government in England and Wales has been dramatic and largely unplanned. The contraction of resources has been driven by austerity measures in the economy, and the deflation in the youth justice system has been driven by a collapse of faith in the efficacy of interventions it delivered.

A major review of the youth justice system conducted by Charles Taylor published its report in 2016. It advocates an approach prioritising ‘the child first and the offender second’ (Taylor, 2016, p. 3). The report proposed more diversion and the establishment of Children’s Panels to decide on interventions. It also recommended the establishment of a new form of education-focused secure institution to replace young offender institutions (YOIs). The report received a lukewarm response from a Conservative government disinclined to take radical, complex and potentially controversial steps to restructure the youth justice system while trying to negotiate the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union (Transform Justice, 2016).

The policy paralysis that accompanied the four years leading up to the formal ratification of Brexit in January 2020 has prompted louder calls for the complete abolition of the youth justice system (Case and Haines, 2020). What might this mean or look like? In the next activity you can take a closer look.

Activity 5 Community oriented justice

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes for this activity

As The Open University celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019 (see Earle and Mehigan, 2019) some of its senior academics were invited to present lectures that reflected their understanding of and contributions to contemporary issues. Professor Jo Phoenix chose to talk about youth crime and the youth justice system. This has been a focus of her work as a social scientist for over 30 years. In her lecture she reviewed some of the issues that have been explored in this course and ended her presentation with a call for alternatives, daring alternatives developed in the bold tradition of The Open University itself. Established in 1969, The Open University broke with the elitism and exclusivity of the conventional university system and adopted a mission ‘to be open to people, places, methods and ideas’. Listen to the final section of Professor Jo Phoenix’s lecture, the title of which is ‘Youth Crime and Justice: Does Age Matter’ presented in the 50th anniversary year of The Open University.

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Transcript: Video 1

Right, let's see how we can get out of this, right? Because I don't know about you. I don't like being depressed. I'm actually quite a cheery person, believe it or not. So how do we escape this endless circularity of age-related justice issues? How can we link social and criminal justice in what we do?
Now, I hope what's come out for you so far is that when we give precedence to considerations of age difference in debate about what to do with young people who are in trouble with the law, we end up in that circularity. It's a necessary thing, because the problematic becomes, how do we stop young people who are breaking the law from becoming adults breaking the law? And yet, even within some of the models that we've outlined earlier, it is possible to imagine a response that emphasises the role of social disadvantage as well as how a variety of social discriminations around class, race, gender, sex, religion, and so on shape the administration of justice.
Now, one way to do this, I want to suggest to you, is something that I'm calling community oriented justice. Community oriented justice sees young people and adults who are suspected or found guilty as part of the community in which they live, rather than merely or only a set of walking risk factors transitioning to a law-abiding adulthood. But before I tell you what community oriented justice is, I want to tell you what it is not.
It is not controlling crime via community policing. It is not controlling crime via community courts, although I'm going to call them community courts in a second, so it's a little bit confusing there. It's not restorative justice, and it's not reparative justice panels. All of these forms of justice require the individual to repair the damage that they have committed to the community. So again, it places the onus back on the individual. Nor are they problem-solving, specialist diversionary courts, which are an alternative to formal adjudication, even though these have been established to deal with complex and profound welfare-related problems.
Now, a community oriented justice has this main assumption, that adults and young people who come to the attention of criminal justice share more in common than separates them. And the emphasis of my suggestion for a community oriented justice needs to be on ameliorating the effects of social injustice. What would this look like?
These are a new form of community courts. These community courts are laypeople, comprised of laypeople, operating within the laws of the land. They are empowered to develop greater understanding and evidence of the criminogenic features of their communities. For those who don't know that term, it means the things that produce crime, such as the overpolicing of Black and ethnic minority young people, the lack of public leisure facilities for young people.
They would need to analyse data and trends, including the identification of areas producing disproportionate numbers of young lawbreakers and the socioeconomic drivers of any of these, of growth in any of these. They would use this understanding to hold local authorities, police constabularies, and through them, central government accountable for their abrogation in their duties to tackle the sources of youthful and adult crime in the area. And they could take part in political discussions at the local authority level about how to resolve some of the problems that young people face, such as youth unemployment, the lack of access to housing, the lack of further education or vocational training without burdening young people with debt.
Now, age here is treated as just one of the many salient factors that courts take account of, along with class, race, sex, and gender, when addressing the criminogenic features of the community. So the focus is the community. It's not the individual. Now, the possibilities are almost limitless. Community courts could order local police constabularies to address the manner in which they overpolice, arrest, and charge particular constituencies of individuals or particular types of people.
They could order local authorities to address the sources of fear and insecurity that drive other groups of young people to carry knives, for instance, or through concerted action to address the economic drivers that make knife and drug crime a rational and reasonable response to often extreme economic precarity. Or local authorities could create more usable, safe, friendly, and free public spaces and leisure facilities for young people. In other words, these things could offer entirely novel experimentation with a totally different way of understanding and addressing the issues inherent in the complexity of young people's transition to adulthood as well as in adult lives.
As I said at the beginning of the lecture, it was all about ideas. It's not about what can be done to reduce lawbreaking of young people or how to reform youth justice. The purpose was simply to open a space to conceive of a form of justice that does not take age differentiation and the idea of young people's transitions to adulthood as the overriding concerns determining our official response.
The lecture was also utterly utopian in its vision for an alternative form of justice. I make no apologies for this, as I believe it is not possible to address issues of social justice without recourse to blue-skies thinking and visions. And let's face it. If we were all tied to imagining only what was realistic and grounded in the realities of the present, I dare say that such a thing as an Open University would not exist.
End transcript: Video 1
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The abolition of the youth justice system, or its replacement with community courts addressing a range of social injustices undifferentiated by age, is a radical and utopian vision. Jo Phoenix insists her ideas are not a fully-fledged blueprint for change, but instead represent a very different way of thinking about what the problem is, where solutions can be found and who can make it happen. She closes by suggesting that without these utopian visions there would be no such thing as The Open University – a university open to all, regardless of previous education and schooling. Her ideas are radical by seeking to remove the child, the age-defined individual, from the picture entirely. Open thinking from an open mind, she challenges us to go further, think harder and find real change.

Radical reduction in the size and reach of the youth justice system may or may not be a continuing feature of the uncertain future of the UK, but one thing is certain for now. There will be a need for a continuing focus on children’s rights to safeguard their well-being in society. For this reason, this course on youth justice will end with a leap out of the territory of the United Kingdom (UK) into the universal concerns of the United Nations (UN). The United Nations is an international forum established at the end of the second world war after the triumph over fascism. It reflected global concern that the implications of racism and narrow nationalistic interests that had tipped into genocide against Jewish people and other ethnic minorities demanded a planetary structure to maintain peace and to promote progress, better living standards and human rights for all the people of the world. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted in 1948 as the platform of the United Nations. It has become an important reference point for developing support for human rights, and the particular rights of children.


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