Youth justice and inequality

24 Jul 2008 by Karl Hallam

The reports of the apparent rise in extreme youth violence which have been highlighted in recent months is creating a lot of anxiety. Channel 4's series on the subject, Louise Casey's proposals and Imperial College's rejection of Majid Ahmed all contribute to an atmosphere of panic and outrage. Here Jeremy Cushing of the Cadence Network gives his personal view, with references to the role of inequality and restorative justice.

Personally I'm a Wilkinsonian (Defined nicely by Polly Toynbee as believing that ‘Inequality is the real enemy') and we're saying ‘What do you expect?' In a society which is characterised by rampant inequality those who find themselves excluded will take to violence. It's the price you pay for tolerating extremes of wealth and a consumerist approach. It amounts to public and visible unfairness, and if you tolerate unfairness long enough the result will be that people will go to greater and greater lengths to subvert the system. Deal with it.

In view of this, any solution that might be proposed is likely to be a sticking-plaster only: the underlying problem is unlikely to go away. However our society is not going to change radically in the short or even medium term, so maybe we need to improve our sticking plasters for the time being. Is there anything that can be done short of an anti-neoliberal revolution?

As usual, if you take away the underlying cause you get a messy collection of secondary or incidental factors, many of which can be tackled in ways which at least mitigate the worst effects. The government's proposal to restructure the youth justice system in the hopes of moving it more towards prevention might do some good, though I can't help feeling that the manifest failures of the system put in place in 1998 are more to do with lack of vigorous enforcement than with faulty structure.

My experience is as a panel volunteer dealing with referral orders. Most of the young people we deal with can be persuaded to make a real commitment to change. Victims who attend panels seldom show a desire for retribution, or if they do they tend to soften when they meet the perpetrator. One of the most satisfying moments happened at a recent panel when the mother of the perpetrator wept as she said that living with her son was ‘a nightmare' and the mother of the victim, as she left the room, patted her on the shoulder to indicate that she understood the problem. What I'm saying is that referral orders point to the success of restorative justice, which I am quite sure is because referral order panels take perpetrators seriously and offer them respect.

Referral orders were created nearly a decade ago. Their success could long since have been followed up and the area of restorative justice widened. (There is an obvious need to train the police in RJ techniques.) Instead, there has been a continuing and heavy-handed emphasis on punishment persisted in the face of clear evidence that it doesn't work and is also very expensive. Everyone knows that only a minute proportion of the Youth Justice Board's budget is spent on prevention. Nobody seems to know about referral orders: as is obvious from Imperial College's decision on Majid Ahmed, the basic principle is not understood. This again reflects the absence of any public commitment to RJ, possibly because it might upset the tabloids?

Given this history of timidity in moving away from the punitive approach it seems likely that the same weakness will characterise any new system the government creates. But given strong leadership and sufficient resources the new children's trusts could work. They won't be able to cure the problems of poverty, inequality and neglect which are undoubtedly behind most youth crime, but they might be able to forestall some of the more extreme damage we do to children in our society.

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