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Youth Justice in England and Wales: Making the Best of a Bad Job

21st January 2004

Since 1997, the Labour government has overseen a major reform of the youth justice system in England and Wales.  They have succeeded in halving of the time between arrest and sentence for persistent young offenders, instituting a new reprimand and final warning scheme to replace police cautioning and introducing restorative justice at different stages of the process.  Mr Allen recognised that there have been a number of positive outcomes from these reforms, including the fact that the number of reconvictions have been reduced and the custody levels has dropped. 

However, despite these positive developments, he argued that "From a human rights perspective all is not well."  Problems cited by Mr Allen included the continuing criticism from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child of the low age of criminal responsibility (10), the low age threshold for custodial sentences (12) and the conditions in youth penal establishments.  Said Mr. Allen, "The existing statutory principal aim of preventing offending has not deterred the government from legislating mandatory minimum sentences for juveniles convicted of possessing firearms, introducing a new indeterminate sentence of detention for public protection and setting out 15 years as the starting point for consideration in cases of murder by under 18s. Nor did it stop the Court of Appeal last year encouraging long custodial sentences for mobile phone robbers 'irrespective of age and previous convictions'."

"Serious youth crime often reflects the violence, disruption and lack of respect, which has marked the early lives of young offenders. For others delinquency comes about through temporary attachment to a  'must have' culture that prizes the acquisition of fashion items and associated status at any price."  He added, "A genuine commitment to prevention and rehabilitation for children would precisely take account of age, previous convictions and the range of other more complex factors that lie beneath delinquency."

Mr Allen stated that a truly reforming agenda would deal with offending by children under 14 outside the criminal justice system, phase out of prison custody altogether for under 18s and provide a flexible court response to child and family problems using restorative justice and effective community based programmes. "Such an approach, properly resourced, could really get to grips with the causes of youthful bad behaviour while limiting the unnecessary stigma of a criminal record and the damaging impact of detention."

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