Discussing The Appropriate Responses To Youthful Offending Criminology Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

The question of whether the process of incarceration is effective or not, is one debate, it can assist the rehabilitation of some offenders and at the same time can have a harmful effect on others. Whether custody is an appropriate response to youthful offending is another debate, the impacts of custody can have totally different impact on those under the age of 18, the way they respond to custody and the way they react to custody in the life after. Crisis now defines the core of the English and Welsh penal system. Despite a 42% decline in the amount of crime reported to the British Crime Survey since 1995 the prison population has soared to an all time high of more than 85,000 in 2010 (85,086 on May 2010 - more than doubling since 1992) and overcrowding has reached record levels. The total number of children in prison (April 2010) is 2164, of which 2051 are boys and 113 girls [1] . Children in prison have usually experienced a troubled home life, including poor parenting, violence, and abuse before they end up in prison. There has been concern about the use of custody for children for many years, intensified by scandals involving bullying, sexual abuse, suicide, self-injury, social needs of the children, such as family and education, and the risk of further criminal activity following release. Despite these problems, the government has still allowed the number of child prisoners to rise.

Article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that

custody for children should be used "only as a measure of last resort and for the

shortest appropriate time". In England and Wales, this clearly is not the case and we lockup more children than any other country in Western Europe. We should encourage the use of child centered ways of engaging with the whole child that can tackle the underlying causes of their behaviour. Custody is not an appropriate response to youthful offending and I will attempt to discuss this with reference to the use of detention for under 18s in England and Wales.


In spite of the fact that recorded offending by children has been in decline in recent years, increasing numbers of children are being sent to prison. Between 1994 and 2004, the number of children sentenced to penal custody in England and Wales increased by 90%. [2] In addition to criticism about the high numbers, it has been argued that children are being deprived of their liberty for longer than is necessary. These children and young people are known to have some of the greatest needs of any in the country. They are likely to come from violent, chaotic and abusive backgrounds, and are often frightened and/or angry about their circumstances. The probability of them exhibiting difficult and problematic behaviour is high. Prisons are institutions designed for security rather than care. The basic structure of a prison, such as the size of units and low levels of staffing, mitigates against delivering child-centered care.

Article 37(b) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) explicitly states that "the arrest, detention and imprisonment of a child shall be used only as a measure of last resort, and for the shortest appropriate period of time."

"Juveniles who enter the juvenile justice system can be profiled as being socially and economically vulnerable. They often experience familial problems (e.g. judicial interventions in the family, harmful family atmosphere) and their school career evolves adversely and involves problem behaviour, bad grades and truancy. Profiles also show an overrepresentation of boys especially of minority groups. These socio-demographic features are even more significant in case of the juveniles brought before court. Whether these profiles give rise to more delinquent behaviour, facilitate a referral to judicial authorities, or else a combination of both, cannot be determined." [3] 


In order to provide a complete argument I will briefly explain how the use of detention for under 18's has developed over the years within England and Wales.

Incarcarative institutions for children are not new and have always been underpinned by care/welfare priorities and by punitive/retributive objectives. Since the establishment of the first penal institution exclusively for children at Parkhurst Prison for boys in 1838 an array of policy initiatives, legal developments and carceral experiments have created and sustained a panoply of institutional forms. When the Conservative government came in to power in 1979, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, citizens saw this as the beginning of a punitive chapter for the youth offenders of the nation. However, in opposition to this punitive chapter, support developed for decarceration imperatives. Various critics argued that having children and young people in custody was a harmful, expensive and counterproductive process. A range of influences combined to form a delicately balanced consensus which was to guide decarerative juvenile policy and practice through the 80's and 90's. In this period, the numbers of children in custody decreased dramatically. However by the time New Labour came into power in 1997, as a moral panic outburst occurred over England and Wales over youth crime, the decarcerative experiment was officially over and it was the start of an era in which the political parties would turn to the child in order to flex its authoritarian and disciplinary muscle. Youth justice, law and policy shifted from welfarism to revenge justice. [4] 

Accordingly, within months of coming to power, the New Labour Government exercised its new 'get tough' white paper No More Excuses [5] , by replacing the idea of youth crime as a product of poverty, social inequality or psychological disadvantage. Where now the emphasis now rested on parental support programmes (Sure Start and On Track), and offender responsibility behavioural programmes (Community Payback). "Punishment is to be made proportionate to the seriousness and/or persistence of offending; the system is to be administered swiftly and surely; and young people are to be confronted with the consequences of their behaviour" [6] .

Juvenile justice is primarily governed by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, section 41 of which established the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales (YJB). It is an executive non-departmental public body. The YJB claims to "work to prevent offending and re-offending by children under the age of 18, and to ensure that custody for them is safe, secure, and addresses the causes of their offending behaviour". [7] As well as working with all children in conflict with the law, the YJB also deals with those considered at risk of offending, through targeted prevention and early intervention. In England and Wales, up until 1994, custodial sentences were only possible for children aged 15-17 years, with the exception of younger children who had committed serious offences. Since then, stiffer penalties were introduced, including the Detention and Training Order which can be given to 12-17-year-olds. This order sentences the child to custody for a period of no less than four months and no more than two years [8] .

In 1997, the Chief Inspector of Prisons conducted a damning review of conditions and treatment of young prisoners and concluded that under-18 year olds should not be held in the prison system. The government did not accept this recommendation. Instead, the Prison Service designated certain institutions, or wings of institutions as exclusively for juveniles, with improved regimes to take account of the particular needs of adolescents. A pledge to phase out the use of custody for teenagers, first made by the Conservative government in the Criminal Justice Act 1991 and repeated by successive home secretaries, has had little impact on practice. Indeed, the picture looks considerably worse a decade on: the numbers have increased three-fold since 1991 [9] .

In November 2002, the Howard League for Penal Reform was successful in bringing a judicial review against the Home Office to ensure that the Children Act 1989 applied to children in penal custody [10] . As a result of the judgment, local authorities retained their statutory duties to safeguard the welfare of children even if they are in penal custody. Prison Service Order 4950 relating to children in penal custody was re-written to reflect the change in the law and the Youth Justice Board placed social workers in Young Offenders Institutions to oversee the protection of children [11] .

Although prison conditions for children have improved over time, thanks to charities such as the Howard League for Penal Reform, the numbers of those in custody have yet to decrease. With the next UK general elections just around the corner, the major political parties are attempting to win the votes of the public by showing that they will be tougher on crime. After reading the Manifesto's of the Conservative and Labour party, it seemed clear that the prison population is only going to increase.

''In the last three years, 80,000 criminals have been released early from prison because the Government failed to build enough places. We are determined that early release will not be introduced again, so we will redevelop the prison estate and increase capacity as necessary to stop it.'' [12] 

(Conservative Manifesto, 2010)

''We have provided over 26,000 more prison places since 1997. There are more criminals in prison - not because crime is rising but because violent and serious offenders are going to prison for longer. We will ensure a total of 96,000 prison places by 2014.'' [13] 

(Labour Manifesto, 2010)

Child Convictions

The minimum age of criminal responsibility is 10 years of age. [14] Children aged 10-17 years who are charged with an offence will appear before a Youth Court. Under certain circumstances, the Youth Court will transfer the case to the Crown Court, which deals with both adults and children. These circumstances include being charged with homicide, with a serious offence for which an adult could be sentenced to at least 14 years imprisonment, or jointly with a person aged 18 or older. Children who have committed a minor offence for the first time can usually be dealt with by the police and local authority outside of the court system, using a variety of orders and agreements. There is a Youth Offending Team (YOT) in every local authority in England and Wales. [15] 

The Children Act 2004 required police authorities and chief officers to cooperate with arrangements to improve the well-being of children with regards to their physical and mental health, and protection from harm and neglect. The custody officer must ensure that concerns arising from the detention of a child or young person are communicated to the appropriate agency. Information sharing is required when a child is to be released from police custody if there are concerns about their welfare arising from risk assessments or other available information; whether there is a risk of significant harm to the child or if this information may be relevant and allow agencies to protect the welfare of a child. [16] 

If a child is convicted of an offence for which an adult could receive at least 14 years in custody, e.g. robbery or rape, they may be sentenced under the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000. This sentence can only be given in the Crown Court. If the conviction is for homicide, the sentence falls under Section 90, otherwise the sentence will be under Section 91. The length of the sentence can be anywhere up to the adult maximum for the same offence, which for certain offences may be life imprisonment. A child who commits murder will receive a mandatory indeterminate sentence of 'long-term detention'. If a child is sentenced to less then four years, they will leave custody at the halfway point of their sentence and be supervised on license by their supervising officer until the three-quarters point. If certain conditions apply, the child may be released on an electronic tag up to 134 days earlier, under the Home Detention Curfew scheme. For children sentenced to four years or more, if they are successful at their parole hearing they will leave custody at the half-way point. If they are unsuccessful, they will leave at the two-thirds point. In both cases, they will be monitored by their supervising officer until the three-quarters point.

How a Young Person may end up in custody

If the court adjourns a case (moves it to another date), it will usually decide to remand the young person, particularly if he or she is charged with a serious offence. It can choose to remand the young person either on conditional bail, unconditional bail, to local authority accommodation or to custody (secure remand). Young people under 17 who are charged and not released on bail will generally be remanded to local authority accommodation (and unless it is a condition of the remand, the local authority can then choose what type of accommodation it provides for the young person). If secure remand is required (due to the offence being particularly serious or the young person has offended frequently), the young person will usually be placed in a secure children's home or STC.

If no alternative community-based punishment is appropriate (due to the seriousness of the offence, the significant offending history of the young person or the risk to the public), young people who have offended will be sentenced to custody. The Detention and Training Order (DTO) is the main custodial sentence for young people aged 12 to 17 years. The length of the sentence is between four months and two years. The first half of the sentence is spent in custody, and the second in the community, under the supervision of the YOT. The court can require the young person to be on an Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme (ISSP) as a condition of the community period of the sentence.

The 'Secure Estate'

So where do the young offenders we incarcerate end up? The 'secure estate for children and young people' is the combined term for the three types of establishment in which 10 to 17-year-olds sentenced or remanded to custody end up. After a young person has been sentenced or remanded to custody by the courts, the YJB Placements Team decides in which part of the secure estate he or she should be held. This decision is based on various factors which include an assessment of the young person's individual risks and needs, trying to keep the young person as close to home as possible, the availability of places, the age, gender, maturity and risks associated with the young person. The secure estate is made up of Local Authority Secure Children's Homes, Secure Training Centres and Young Offender Institutions.

Local Authority Secure Children's Homes (LASCHs) focus on attending to the physical, emotional and behavioural needs of the young people they accommodate. Out of the three types of establishment, secure children's homes have the highest ratio of staff to young people, and are generally smaller, ranging in size from six to 40 beds. This helps to provide young people with support tailored to their individual needs. They are usually used to accommodate younger children (those aged 12 to 14), young women up to the age of 16, and 15 to 16-year-old young men who are assessed as needing extra care. Secure training centres (STCs) are purpose-built centres for young offenders up to the age of 17. STCs house vulnerable young people who are sentenced to custody in a secure environment where they can be educated and rehabilitated. They have a minimum of three staff members to eight trainees. They are smaller in size than YOIs, which means that individual's needs can be met more easily. Young Offender Institutions (YOIs) [17] are run either by the Prison Service or by the private sector, and can accommodate 15 to 21-year olds. The YJB commissions and purchases the places for under-18s (i.e. 15 to 17-year-old boys and 17- year-old girls), who are held in units that are completely separate from those for 18 to 21-year-olds. About 85% of young people in custody are held in YOIs. YOIs have lower ratios of staff to young people than STCs and secure children's homes, and accommodate larger numbers of young people. Consequently, they are less able to address the individual needs of young people, and are generally considered to be less suitable accommodation for those who have been assessed as more vulnerable. Of the 2164 children that are in prison, 163 were placed in a secure children's home, 250 were placed in a secure training centre and 1751 in prison [18] . With such a large percentage of children based in YOIs, where their needs cannot be fully met, is this the best place to put our young offenders?

Why custody is not an appropriate response?

"The sheer scale of child imprisonment in England and Wales, together with the corrosive impact of penal regimes on children, have generated consistent critique from a wide-range of authoritative sources… Despite the weight and authority of such critique, however, successive governments since 1993 - both Conservative and New Labour - have continued to pursue a 'tough' line with regard to criminal justice in general and youth justice in particular." [19] 

Children convicted of crime are usually from poorer backgrounds, with inadequate parenting, many have been sexually abused, and experience violence at home "many young offenders have experienced very poor quality parenting, disruption at home, and in some cases traumatic abuse or loss" [20] . Figures from the Youth Justice Board (YJB) show that during the period April 2004 to March 2005, 3,370 children who had been assessed as vulnerable by the YJB were nevertheless placed in prison. [21] 

Children with mental health problems and girls appear to be particularly vulnerable groups.3 Studies in England and Wales indicate that between 46% and 81% of young prisoners (aged between 15-21 years) have mental health problems.4 Other research claims that about 80% of children in penal custody suffer from at least two mental disorders.5 It is widely accepted that children with intellectual impairments and mental health problems are at increased risk of conflict with the law.6 Children with mental health problems or who have emotional problems should receive treatment. Staff in prisons are often not trained to deal with such children, who are also more likely to be victimised by other children.7 In England and Wales, for example, a 2005 report from the Chief Inspector of Prisons and the Youth Justice Board found that 21% of both boys and girls had been hit, kicked or assaulted by another young person. [22] 

"Children deprived of their liberty and placed in detention are at extreme risk of violence", according to the UN Secretary-General's Study on Violence against Children (hereinafter: UN Study). [23] Based on its global research, the UN Study identifies the following as the main sources of violence in both industrialised and developing countries: violence by staff in detention institutions; violence while in custody of police and security forces; violence as a sentence; violence by adult detainees; violence by other children; and self-harm, including self-mutilation and suicidal behaviour. [24] 

There is a lack of training for staff working with children in penal custody. Although it has been recommended that compulsory training should focus on children's rights, communicating positively with children and child protection, the only compulsory component of prison officer training is physical control and restraint. [25] An independent inquiry commissioned by the Howard League for Penal Reform found that some of the treatment experienced by children in prisons and Secure Training Centres (STCs) would, in any other setting, be considered abusive and trigger a child protection investigation, and could be unlawful. One example cited by the inquiry was the use of methods of restraint that deliberately inflict pain on children. Between 2004 and 2006, 27% of the boys and 19% of the girls in penal custody had been physically restrained by staff [26] . Between November 2005 and October 2006, restraint was used on 1,791 boys and 1,245 girls in the four privately run STCs, despite the fact that they only hold 250 children. [27] A 14-year-old boy and a 15-year-old boy both died in 2004, following the use of physical restraint by staff in two of the county's four Secure Training Centres [28] . At the high profile inquest into the 14-year-old's death, the jury heard that in the hours before he had committed suicide, the child been restrained by staff using a 'nose distraction technique'. The 15 year old child choked and died while being restrained by three officers at Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre. The inquest into his death heard that, while he was being restrained, the 1.47-metres-tall teenager, who weighed less than 45 kg., was ignored when he tried to warn staff that he could not breathe. As well as physical restraint, YOIs also use segregation or solitary confinement, and mechanical restraints can also be used. All incidents must be documented, recorded and audited.

Handcuffs were used by staff at the privately run Hassockfield Secure Training Centre and inspectors found one child who had had handcuffs on for five hours [29] . Inspectors found that physical restraint was used to ensure compliance at Rainsbrook Secure Training Centre and that staff locked children in their rooms as a punishment but failed to record the events [30] . Strip-searching is also standard practice when children are first received into penal custody. Children are also liable to be strip-searched on discharge, following a room search or after a visit. Between January 2005 and October 2006, 100 boys were forcibly strip-searched under control and restraint [31] .

The UN Study mentioned above also asserts that children in detention are at heightened risk of self-mutilation and suicidal behaviour. This may be due to violence, neglect, or poor living conditions. Prolonged or indefinite detention and isolation may also contribute to poor mental health and the risk of self-harm [32] . Children in penal custody are 18 times more likely to commit suicide than children in the community [33] . A total of 30 children have died in custody in England and Wales in the last 17 years. Twenty-eight hanged themselves, the youngest aged 14, and one died while being restrained [34] .

Locking up children also affects their emotional well-being, and traumatises them mentally in the long term, as psychiatrists working with these children stressed "long stays in security are detrimental to an adolescent's emotional development" [35] . They are also made to feel different by staff members, lose their characteristics, and become stigmatised as a criminal. Family visitation is also not applied often enough for these children "the main areas for boys complaints are the extent of time spent alone…insufficient home leaves, and a lack of visits from family and friends" [36] , whether criminal or not, these children need frequent contact with parents, siblings, and friends to enable them to be able to fit back into the society they left when imprisoned. As it is found, that occasionally due to them being locked up for a substantial amount of time, they no longer wished to pursue contact with their parents " In effect, some boys lost all contact with their natural parents and, in a much larger percentage than probably imagined, lost all desire to continue or re-open parental contacts" [37] . This is extremely worrying as to when they are released; there is no help and support for them, in which they strongly need to ensure they refrain from re-offending.

Education is one of the most important processes of growing up, but unfortunately, the institutions children are subjected to, cannot provide adequate learning for these young people. A survey undertaken by the Howard League found classes frequently cancelled in some prisons, and teachers lacked qualifications required to educate these children. They visited thirteen prisons holding boys and spoke to a third of all fifteen year olds. Before being sent to prison, a quarter of them had been studying for GCSE exams. A fifth had special educational needs, and over a third was unable to read or write properly (http://web.ukonline.co.uk/howard.league/). Prison was not offering any special help to the boys who had a problem with reading or writing, and offenders who had been previously studying for their GCSE's at school were unable to continue with their work. The ones with special needs did not receive any extra support; this could suggest why there is a link to young offenders and dyslexia.

Restorative Justice

"In recent years, a new way of thinking about how crime should be viewed and responded to has begun to emerge and is making significant inroads into criminal justice policy and practice" [38] . This new philosophy, called restorative justice respects offenders' humanity whilst condemning their acts. It consists of various initiatives including compensation, repairing damage, or service to the community. Part of this reparation is the desire of many victims that offenders should actively try to improve their chances of not re offending, through skills, courses, literacy, numeracy or drug treatment programmes, for example. Restorative justice also brings into contact (either directly or indirectly) those who have caused harm, and those who have been harmed, in order to identify the impact of an incident, decide how to deal with its aftermath and contribute to a solution. The primary aim is to repair harm and resolve the underlying causes of the behaviour. Restorative Justice has been making positive progress within our Criminal Justice System, it is something that can help change the way of thinking of our young offenders and a positive step forward in the quest for alternatives to custody [39] .


It is widely believed by several academics and penal reform groups that under 18's should not be incarcerated in prisons where the environment can be damaging and, if imprisoned, they should only be held under extreme circumstances, in which they represent a serious risk to the public and housed in secure accommodation. Under 18's should be disciplined for their offending; however the approach our country takes is too punitive. Any sensible system for dealing with those who offend must have at its centre, effective approaches for dealing with the welfare needs which are almost always at the root of serious and persistent youth offending. A quarter of youth offenders have suffered violence in the home, others have suffered sexual abuse and many more have suffered emotional abuse through parental neglect. Nearly half have literacy and numeric levels below those of an average 11 year old and over a quarter have levels below those of a seven year old. Also, 85% of youth offenders show signs of personality disorder and 10 % show signs of psychotic disorder. Half have symptoms of depression, anxiety and concentration problems, this compares with one in 10 children in the general population. This statistics clearly show us that perhaps young people should be treated as children first and offenders second [40] .

According to Goldson, "prisons and other penal institutions in which children are held in England and Wales are very 'successful' at imposing damage and harm (emotional, psychological and physical) and, at the extremes, at talking life." [41] Results from a survey of children in Young Offenders Institutions revealed that 28% of the surveyed children reported being victimised by another child or group of children, and 19% had been victimised by a member of staff [42] . Fifty-nine per cent of those surveyed believed that if they told a member of staff about an incident of victimisation they would not be taken seriously. Research has found that children in penal custody are often concerned that there will be implications if they make a complaint about mistreatment [43] , and there is little evidence that children are making complaints about mistreatment, such as injuries following restraint or forcible strip-searching, despite evidence that such practices occur [44] . Children in penal custody are in the care of the state, yet recent research has concluded that they are being subjected to emotional, psychological and/or physical abuse, by staff and/or by other prisoners: "The closed and isolated nature of prisons can offer the opportunity for abusive actions to be committed with impunity, sometimes in an organized manner and at other times because of the actions of individual members of staff [45] .

It has also been argued that it is not safe to hold young people in adapted cells on adult wings. The whole culture of an adult prison is not suitable for under 18 year olds, who have different needs and should be held separately. NACRO have stated that they have concerns about the growing need to find additional accommodation for young offenders in the adult estate. The juvenile estate should not be overcrowded and the majority of young offenders currently serving sentences should be on robust community alternatives to custody. Youth custody needs to be reduced if we are to have any chance of effectively rehabilitating young offenders and preventing them from following a path of crime into their adult life. Reconviction rates for children leaving prison are also very high, 76% of children re offend within one year of release. [46] 

To combat this, resources should be directed towards non-custodial alternatives that can then be targeted towards the individual needs of each child. Imprisoning more and more people is not the answer to our high crime rate, but restorative justice may be. Reparation has been tried in many western countries and even where it produced no change in reconvictions it is considered worthwhile for the sake of improved treatment of victims. Although not suitable for every case, in New Zealand, where it has been pioneered for over 10 years, for all juvenile offences except homicide research has shown a reduction in re offending rates.