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UK: 'Criminalising young people is counterproductive'

21st June 2010

In an article in the New Statesman, Rod Morgan, former chair of the Youth Justice Board, argues that criminalising young people is counterproductive and creates lifelong offenders. Instead, what is needed is a complete overhaul of youth justice.

The article looks at the recent "law-and-order party-political arms race", and concludes that 2010 might go down in history as a political tuyrning point, when such 'tough on crime' policies reached cooling point.

"No serious analyst of law-and-order policies believes that either the welter of new legislation that has afflicted our criminal justice system or the locking up of increasing numbers of offenders has made us safer in our beds at night. There is general agreement that the time has come to roll back our heavy use of criminal justice interventions and stop talking up the potency of criminal law to solve our social ills."

The article goes on to outline how the current financial crisis and forthcoming major cuts in public spending provide an opportunity to stop doing "a few things we should never have done - chief among them criminalising and locking up so many children and young people, thereby grooming a new generation of long-term adult criminals from whose depredations we will all suffer."

Morgan identifies that crime rates, including those for committed by young people, has fallen since the mid-1990s, yet by 2007 there were more than twice as many children in custody.

Offensive, antisocial behaviour committed by young people may have got worse, but the problem will not be solved by putting "already disaffected and typically disadvantaged youths behind bars," he states. The article goes on to give concrete and detailed proposals as to how taxpayers' money can be saved and society made safer by dealing with young offenders in a new way.

He finishes with: "..it [is] imperative that we shift the centre of expenditure gravity from that which is totemic to something that has a prospect of working."

Read the article in full here.

Crime and punishment

In the same edition, Samira Shackle adds that levels of youth crime have decreased since the early 1990s, however, there has been an increased use of custodial sentences for children and young people. "In 1999, Home Office figures showed that while the level of detected youth crime had fallen by 16 per cent since 1992, custodial sentencing had more than doubled."

Shackle cites a report by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies which found that youth offending had changed little, but more children had been criminalised or imprisoned. The same report found that reoffending rates were highest among those who had had a custodial sentence.

The article finishes with identifying "a problem in the statistical analysis of youth crime, which is the changing definition of what constitutes a crime, and how harshly it is punished. Crime levels may be unchanged, but criminalisation is rising."

Read the article in full here.