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Our Crime: Doing youth justice

Updated Friday, 30th March 2012

What are the practical ways of dealing with young people who engage themselves in criminal activities? Join the debate with three Open University academics.

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MARY JANE KEHILY:  Okay, well we’ve had a lot of fun talking about the themes that run through the programmes, but I’d like to call upon both of you now to think about the practicalities, what happens to young people who engage in these activities and that they find themselves in the youth justice system, so I wanted to ask you about, you know, the practical ways of dealing with these young people.

RICHARD HESTER:  Yeah, I think there is an idea that youth justice practitioners should just be robots or zombies as John Pitts once called them, the zombification of correctional karaoke I think was the expression he used and the zombification of the youth justice workforce, they just did what they were told by the youth justice board.  I think that’s the problem, I think because ideas of youth and crime are quite complicated and effectiveness is first of all very much to do with personal relationships and human beings talking to each other and a sort of deep understanding or at least just stopping to think about what’s going on is important, and this overarching knowledge of how things might be and how things are is important as well as the underpinning knowledge of how the system fits together.  So I think that’s really important.

Getting back to Zygmunt Bauman again his metaphor of the missile I think works in youth justice practice.  So if in modern times there was a very simple relationship between the missile, the sort of bullet that came out of the rifle and that you could predict it would hit its target if it was vaguely pointing in the right direction, he suggests that in liquid modernity or high modernity or whatever we like to call it where the target disappears and is moving all the time, what we need is a smart missile, a missile that changes direction, knows how to change direction and knows that keeping aware of a very moving environment.  I think that’s the kind of practitioner we want in youth justice, a smart youth justice practitioner who thinks and who can change direction and can change his or her relationship with the young person they’re working with.  So I think it’s important, yeah.

MARY JANE KEHILY:  I’m going to be really provocative now, because I’m going to say like from the films the thing you get a sense of is everything being fun, but the youth justice system being not fun.  You know, that’s the boring bit, that’s the bit that you kind of have to engage with, but it’s kind of-


MARY JANE KEHILY:  Well, you know, it’s dull, it’s boring, it’s not very effective.  It’s the kind of, you know, compulsory level of engagement, it’s like you have to go to school, but you don’t want to so you’re just kind of going to do what you can.

RICHARD HESTER:  Well my view is that that is unfortunately very much the case in some places, it will be wrong to say that all experiences are like that and all youth justice teams are boring and unimaginative and so on and do things in a very mechanical way.  There are examples of incredible I think innovation and engagement as well.

ROD EARLE:  It’s a complicated story in a sense isn’t it?  Because at one level it is the refining of a technical expertise and the fine tuning of a machinery of government through the youth justice system, so to one degree or another youth justice practitioners become expert at turning cogs, become cogs in a certain kind of machine, and that’s part of the story and then again when you go and talk to I think sometimes we do talk to students even at the Open University sort of thing that we get the opportunity to interact and you hear of projects or you can read about projects in some of the youth justice sort of media, phenomenally imaginative, innovative and inspiring work being done.  Now that’s a sort of tension within the system, I think there’s that always going on.

RICHARD HESTER: But one of the things that has changed again looking at the past through rose tinted glasses, you know, when you used to go out rock-climbing and so on we used to go on real mountains and do risky things.  I mean I was horrified two years ago, no it must have been longer than two years ago being part of a sort of youth justice project and that the rock climbing was actually heavily supervised ascent of a very small pillar, concrete pillar, and I was thinking where’s the fun, where’s the excitement there?

Rod Earle: And in some ways although, you know, that the argument around diverting somebody from troubles by giving them excitements that are legitimate, and in fact it’s very hard to match those thrills, the transgressive thrills of stealing a bus and it’s what in some ways is called edgework isn’t it?  This sense of tipping over into chaos, but holding just the right line, for men particularly can be a very exhilarating experience, you know, it appears that edgework is something that sort of is throughout the social structure as it were.

RICHARD HESTER:  That’s what I think really worries me the degree to which the risk factor prevention paradigm dominates youth justice practice in a mechanical way for two reasons, one because the basis of it is shaky and I don’t think it should occupy the position it does in practice in the North Atlantic and secondly the interpretation of what it might mean by practitioners can sometimes seem horrifically mechanical and misinformed, so you aggregate, you know, the risk of neighbourhood and criminal peers and indeed family and schools and you get a number and then you get some kind of sentence and response as a result of that, I find that very problematic and Colin Webster’s work about the impact of community on offending and reoffending and desistance exposes that to be slightly problematic.

So I would hope that, you know, practitioners develop that into a less mechanical, more organic, thoughtful process than maybe is the case in some areas, although I’m also aware that in some areas it’s dealt with really quite well.

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