Restorative justice and the Children’s Plan

3 Jan 2008 by Karl Hallam

A productive festive season for Jeremy Cushing of the Cadence Works Network leads him to say, "The Children's Plan is a giant grab-bag of worthy ideas, many of which, if implemented, would do real good. However it is very hard to see an overall strategy; and in many ways the Plan stops short of recommending the kind of real change which some people think is needed.

In terms of restorative justice (RJ), some parts of the Plan are rather puzzling. Paragraph 6.77 starts: ‘We intend therefore to pilot a restorative approach to youth offenders from April 2008'. But this has already been done. Significant elements of RJ have been incorporated in the system since the Crime and Disorder Act of 1998. These involve ‘referral orders', which enable the courts to ‘refer' a convicted young offender to a panel comprising volunteers and a social worker. The volunteers are selected and trained by the ‘youth offending teams' (set up to co-ordinate agencies, in particular the police, probation and social services) which were also created by the 1998 Act.
The panel agrees a ‘contract' with the offender which must include an element of reparation. Victims are invited to attend the panel meetings (though they often don't) and encouraged to explain to the offender how his or her act has affected them. The panel discusses with the offender what actions are needed to make sure that he or she does not reoffend.

This system has been in place for nearly a decade, so why we need to ‘pilot' an RJ approach is beyond me. Evidence that referral orders work well in reducing reoffending has been available for years, and opportunities to extend the system have been obvious (and largely ignored). For example, in the present situation the panel volunteers have only a tenuous connection with the local community. But one of the most important features of RJ systems in other cultures is that offenders have to confront their community. Some progress might have been made in creating links: except that, of course, no low-level community institutions exist in the British system.

Similarly, referral orders can only happen when a child has been arrested, charged, taken to court and convicted. (They also have to plead guilty.) This process may have the effect of frightening the child out of further offending, but it is also frighteningly expensive. You can also argue that by the time all this has happened we have fairly comprehensively failed with that child already. And this juggernaut of a process is frequently brought into use for absurdly minor offences, because everyone concerned is terrified that the public will think that young thugs are getting away with it.

The Plan acknowledges that ‘Targeted Youth Support' may be necessary and announces the intention to experiment. If this leads to a major improvement in existing pre-arrest mechanisms (appropriate behaviour contracts and so on) it will be welcome. But I would have been happier if the government had announced better training for the police, since it seems inevitable that the police will continue to be the most important front-line agency in dealing with low-level misbehaviours. (It ought to be the parents and the local community. Alas.)

All these things should have arisen out of the 1998 Act years ago. It's difficult not to think that the Blair government took its eye off the RJ ball after about 2000 and Mr Balls is only just beginning to remedy this.

The scatter-gun approach of the Plan also arouses suspicion that there is some underlying problem which is not being acknowledged (let alone tackled). I believe this to be the case. Successive reports have recently damned our approach to children. UNICEF's ‘Child Well-Being in Rich Countries' put the UK 21st overall out of 21 countries surveyed. (A real achievement, since these included the US.) Of six indicators we actually were bottom on two - ‘family and peer relationships' and ‘behaviours and risks', and next to bottom on ‘subjective well-being'. Anyone who is involved with youth justice will recognise the existence of children and families whose desperation supports the UNICEF's criticisms. Another branch of the UN, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, also reported recently and strongly criticised our attitude to children's legal position. In particular they attacked us for going on putting children in adult jails after years of promising not to. The UK has around 2800 children in custody, of whom around 250 are in secure training institutions and 80 are in adult jails. (We have a special exemption from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in order to do this.) Yet another UN agency, the UN Committee Against Torture, expressed concern in 2004 about treatment of inmates in our prisons, and children's charities have repeatedly condemned the deliberate infliction of pain, along with strip-searches and solitary confinement, found in British young offender institutions. Children may also be kept far from their homes. Since 1990, 29 children have died in custody. Most have died after suicide, but a number have committed suicide after, or died as a result of, the use of government-approved ‘restraint techniques'. Of the budget of the Youth Justice Board 70% is spent on locking children up: everything else has to come out of the remaining 30%.

That said, the recent closure of Tony Blair's Respect taskforce and the removal of Louise Casey do suggest that the government as a whole may be moving away from the Asbo era, characterised by alarmist depictions of children as dangers to society and a broadly punitive approach, towards more enlightened youth justice policy.

The Children's Plan makes no mention of the age of criminal responsibility (10 in England, 8 in Scotland), which many people have blamed for the large increase in prosecutions (19% in 2006 alone). The age of criminal responsibility was reduced from 14 to 10 by the 1998 Act. The thinking was that it is better to intervene early, and that is certainly true. But most people agree that the criminal system is not the best way to do this. The practical effect of the low age is often to force the police to behave like social workers or psychiatrists (they can get involved in young people's experiments in sexual behaviour, for example, an area totally inappropriate to police interview rooms). I suspect it also leads to the police being used as backup by agencies which, if they were adequately financed, would deal with cases themselves: 12-year-olds reported to the police from children's homes, for example, another hardy perennial. Similarly desperate parents whose children are out of control call the police simply because they are there and everyone knows the number 999.

It can be argued very convincingly therefore that the strategy reflected in this part of the 1998 Act is not succeeding, and that a change is necessary if more appropriate agencies are to get involved with preventing children from offending by dealing with the causes (something else the police cannot do). Restorative justice, especially if it involved communities more, could be a useful tool. If it worked at all, it would certainly be less expensive. It's difficult to estimate the cost of arresting, charging and bringing to court a 12-year-old who damaged his mum's kitchen door, but I can't imagine it would be less than £1,000. In more serious cases, it costs around £170,000 a year to keep one teenager in secure accommodation.

We are out of line with most European countries in all these regards, and a prima facie view might almost say we were at war with our children. But what is most marked is the lack of apparent understanding of just how bad the situation is, and how systemic it is. The treatment of children, and the high proportion in detention as compared with other nations, is matched by the treatment of adults. The government's attempts to abolish child poverty are, of course, a proxy for reducing poverty per se: although there are plenty of homeless children in the UK most children are in poverty because their families are. I can't help fearing that the Children's Plan is yet another attempt to cure symptoms that are caused by a strategic failure in society: the persistence of serious poverty and all the pressures it brings to bear on families and children at the bottom of the social scale.

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