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Youth justice, it's a crime

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Last week saw the sentencing of the youngest people in Britain to be prosecuted for rape, two 11-year-old boys convicted of the attempted rape of an 8-year old girl. The case drew attention not for the sentence itself, a three-year supervision order for each but rather that the young offenders were tried as adults at the Old Bailey. The last two decades have seen substantial reform in the realms of the Youth Justice System, the establishment of the Youth Justice Board, Youth Offending Teams and Youth Offending Panel, and yet despite the infrastructure and protection in place to adequately deal with young offenders in the youth courts it was still considered appropriate to hear the case in the daunting setting of the adult courts. Now we should make it clear that we are not questioning the gravity of the offence committed by these young people, nor whether the sentence was just, but rather the system through which it was processed. The issue with our youth justice system is that it has become a flawed system driven by public fear and government desire to be seen to be doing something, and has lost sight of what it was originally put in place to do. Public perception of crime in general is misguided; 2 in 3 people believe that crime nationally has increased in the last two years when in fact all sources of statistics on crime suggest that crime is falling. The huge increase in legislation and new crimes created during the New Labour government only added to the impression that crime is a big issue that required clamping down on. Further, government policies, such as "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", and intense media coverage, with sensationalist headlines such as "Broken Britain", gives the perception that crime is a continuing problem. As a result of intense media coverage of youth offending many now associate their misguided belief that crime is rapidly increasing in our broken society with the rouge misbehaving youths they see in the news on a daily basis; 75% of people believe that youth offending has increased in the previous two years – in fact levels of youth crime have remained pretty constant for the past decade – and 71% believe that the system is "too soft", which may be why young offenders such as these two 11-year-old boys find themselves thrown into an adult court to face the consequences of their actions. The scenario seen in this recent case is just one example where the government's fear of being seen as soft on crime by the public has led to youth justice suffering. Numerical targets set by those in power encourage the over-criminalisation of young offenders and the overuse of summary justice procedures. In particular, the dreaded ASBO originally derived for neighbours from hell but swiftly changed for use in criminalising the non-criminal activities of young people. When we discuss fair labelling we should consider the impact of labelling a young person a criminal, by labelling a child a criminal you are encouraging them to act as such. The system is in effect criminalising more and more young children and thus reducing their life choices when in fact the aim should be rehabilitation and reintegration into society. The aims of the new Youth Justice System when it was developed included an emphasis on crime prevention, speedy justice, control in the community, restorative justice and responsibility. The structure is in place to deal with young offenders in an environment designed to impress upon them the severity of their actions but also to provide them some protection from the harsh reality of the Criminal Justice System, with emphasis on encouraging rehabilitation and reintegration into society in their adult life. The fear that this approach will fail and that young offenders will be allowed to run wild is greatly exaggerated, young people should be given a chance to learn and grow from their mistakes not be unnecessarily labelled and locked away. • For additional information or comment please contact: Peter Butterfield of Gepp & Sons. The above is not legal advice; it is only intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.