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In recently years, there are many controversies about 'underage incarceration' in the society. As we all know, incarceration is treated as the center of the crime policy in many countries. It is a kind of custodial sentence which aims to imprison the dangerous offenders and protect the public safety. However, some people argue that we should not apply this on the underage offenders, which includes the children and young people who ages under 21. About a hundred years ago, most countries and scholars have already assumed that child and young people who aged under 21 should be treated differently within the criminal justice system and prison system. This traditional perception about child has been built throughout the years, but due to the change of society and citizen growth, some scholars are trying to challenge these perceptions. In this essay, we are going to discuss about 'should child and young people (under 21) ever be incarcerated?'.
In most of the countries all over the world, special criminal justice system and prisons are specially designed for the youngsters, they are excluded from the adult system. Before we talk about incarcerate the child and young people or not, we have to know more about the reasons why such a separate system is design for the child and how do the present systems work.
Since 1500s, people views about child began to change. Public believe that child should be treated differently, it is because child always relies on different external forces to survive since they are born. As they learn everything from the people around them and they start their lives with some traditional social norms. Because of this, they will be easily affected by other. With these special characteristics, society should try our best to protect them and keep them away from the 'bad things' in the community. According to the traditional, it is believed that if youngsters really do something wrong, we should not ask them to take the responsibilities for their acts as they do that just because they are affected by others. Also, we should help and guide them to a correct way.
The public perception about the child has already greatly affected the development of the criminal justice system and prison system. It is stated that the children below a certain age cannot be prosecuted for criminal offences, and mostly they will not have any custodial sentences, like imprisonment. There are many charities, like 'Prison Reform Trust' in UK, promote 'alternatives to custody' for the child. They believe that child is more malleable than adults and they should have different treatments. They support 'no incarceration for child', and it should be treated as the "last resort". However, there are some people began to voice opposite opinions about this in recent years. It is because they feel the change of society as well as the people.
Have you ever read some horrible news about a child kill their friend or even family members? The headlines like "Boy, 15, charged with murder of Liverpool teenager"(2010) or "Killer, 16, locked up over Edinburgh takeaway death"(2010) can be easily found in news report. It doesn't a single case, but it really happens all over the world and shock the world. Can we just let these children go away without any punishment because they are 'too small'? Do we still apply the traditional perceptions about child on the present situation?
It seems that we should not just focus on the children involve, but also the offenses too. It is now the time to change some of the traditional perception. It is acceptable that we should protect our little children. However, those traditional thoughts have already appeared hundreds years ago, the world is changing every day, Because of the globalization, society changes a lots, its change will also affect the thinking and norms of people inside the society for sure. People may think and act differently which not like the past.
Using the news report of Yahoo News (2010), a thirteen years old boy raped a five years old girl in a hospital. However, the boy is not going to be charge with 'rape'. It is because the Roman civil law stated that male under 14 does not have the sex ability as well as the child under fourteen-years-old will never be charged with rape. Everyone is shocked and feel angry with the situation. Not only Hong Kong is dealing with this kind of case, but also all over the world. Because of this, some sociologists start to call to review age limit for juveniles, they did different surveys to prove that most of the child and young people under 21 are both physically and emotionally mature to responsible for their acts.
To deal with some kind of 'serious crime', we should change the normal way we treat the youngsters. I do not mean to support the government to incarcerate all underage offenders, but we should be reminded that we should not rely on those traditional perceptions fully. We should focus on the 'present situation' instead of the 'past'. To make a right decision which relate to the present, we should firstly amend the traditional thoughts and consider more about present situation. We cannot use one example for all cases, things are different, for example the background of offenders and the nature of crime. The court should consider every single element and for those child and young people who commit serious crime, it is reasonable to incarcerate them.
The nature of offense is an important element the court should concern about. It is meaningless to incarcerate all underage offenders who just commit minor crime or serious crime. Apart from this, society should also consider 'the purpose of incarceration' and the effectiveness of this method.
Firstly, let's discuss about why do we incarcerate the offenders? In general, the main reason must be 'to punish them for their illegal acts'. Incarcerate the dangerous offenders can help to protect the public safety. It is believed that government should take the responsibility to maintain the social stability, it should assess and respond to the risk of public safety. (Easton & Piper, 2008: 310-311) And for the function of 'retributive', offenders are required to have penalties if they commit illegal behavior. According to Marsh (2004: 12), retribution works with a concept of "a tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye." He thinks that offenders should pay back for their wrongdoings.
Retribution is also related to social orders and law. As everyone live in the community have their rights and responsibilities, no matter adult or child. Society contributes many resources for the child, like education provision. Children learn and gain from the community, they should take the responsibilities and do contribution to the society. At least, they should follow and obey the rules and laws as to ensure the public safety. Because of this, when they do something which may harm the society, it is reasonable to compensate loss and harm of the society. To take the responsibilities of their wrongdoings, it is normal to incarcerate them. We can see this as a kind of social contract between the citizens and society, all citizens should know the cost if they break the law, such as incarceration. Incarceration may bring different side effects to the child and the society, so it is important for the court to consider whether the act is serious enough to make such a sentence carefully.
No matter how, child and the young people are the youngest group in the society. Because of the social responsibility, society should take the responsibilities to protect them and give the very best for them. Society always place great hope on these vulnerable children, and believes that these children will be change if we help them. With this hope, scholars always advocate countries to focus on 'rehabilitation' more than 'retribution' in their juvenile justice system.
However, incarceration is still the fastest way to stop the crime as we put those dangerous people inside the prison and keep away from our society. Also, it can have a deterrent effect which applies on offenders and the public. According to Ashworth (2007: 993-994), deterrence theories have individual deterrence and general deterrence. Deterrent effect can help to reduce the crime and the chance of reoffending. For the offender, imprisonment can help to deter them from reoffend as they suffer inside the prison. For the general public, the government can make use of the previous cases as examples to teach the public and help to further deter them from committing similar crime. Harsh punishment can also reflect the social disapproval of an act, and it can be seen as a kind of educational policy that can help to clarify the social norms to the society. It is no doubt that 'incarceration' is the most deterrence sentence amongst all sentences, offenders will take this as a hard lesson in the lifetime and a reminder of stop committing crime in their future. To a certain extent, incarceration is an effective method to stop and prevent crime.
However, some people still doubt the deterrent effect as they don't think it can really apply to all offenders. Also, we cannot make sure the messages will spread to everyone correctly inside the society. 'Known' and 'understanding' are different matters, even they know about the norms does not mean they understand them. Although most of the prisoners suffer from the hard and harsh prison lives, no one can guarantee these people will surely not reoffend after they release, especially for those vulnerable young people.
In the report of the Independent Commission on Youth Crime and Antisocial Behavior (2010), it stated that "three quarters of all young people leaving custody re-offend within a year" which means nearly three out of four young offenders reoffend within a year after they release. This is really a disappointing result of reconviction rate which showing that prison lives didn't frighten them at all. Statistics tell us incarceration cannot work on those underage offenders effectively, and this the make the public began to confuse about whether to treat young offenders as malleable children who require help and guidance or as a mature and morally responsible agent who deserve the same punishment like adult.
Incarceration does not work on the function of 'deterrence', it also brings negative impacts to the child, young people and society. Child and young people under 21 are still in the developing stage, they are learning and building up their own mind set. In some case, imprisonment only tells them they are wrong, but never tell them what is wrong and why it wrong. Mutual understanding is very important, if they do not know what is right and wrong, they may feel angry about being imprisoned. It may lead to more serious personal and social problems, like angry with the society and do some anti-social behaviors, etc. Child and young people are the important capital to our society, they will be the productive members who mark contribution to our future society. It is believed that incarcerate them is same as give them up. A simple decision may bring both these children and our society a very different future. In this case, some charities support that we should give a chance for those child.
Labeling theorists are one of the big group argue that we should not incarcerate any underage offenders, they stated that incarcerate the youngsters in the prison will only make the situation worsen and make the youngsters' lives even harder. According to labeling theorists, pulling one people into the system make matters worse, not better. (Lily, Cullen & Ball, 2007 : 105) Howard S. Becker (1963) stated that once the people is labeled, they can no longer act as a moral human being , or even break other law with their 'offenders' role. Youngsters will be labeled as 'prisoners' since they are incarcerated, this role will follow them forever and become their 'master status'. About this situation, Becker (1963) named them as the 'outsiders' which are excluded from the mainstream of society, and this roles make their lives harder. Prison life will hinder the growth of the child and young people, they do not have the chance of enjoying the normal education and this will surely affect their future lives. When they have been kept away from the community, after they release they will find difficult to reintegrate. They do not have good education or any special ability, it is impossible for them to live as a normal growth youngster. Finally, this group of ex-offenders cannot find their status in the community and they will be gathered. This will surely increases the risk of reoffending, and even diminish the chances of having normal lives which may involve marriage and employment. Above reasons show us that incarcerate the child may lead to very serious result, it cannot help them or even pull them to 'death'.
Besides, according to the social learning theory, during the imprisonment period, offenders are allowed to talk with other offenders, this may make them a chance to exchange some criminal information with other senior prisoners. 'Social learning theorists believe crime is a product of learning the norms, values and behaviors associated with criminal activities. (Larry J Siegel, 2008: 203) Through the interaction inside the prisons, those underage offenders will be easily affected by peers or other adult offenders. In this case, child and youngsters may commit more crimes, and most likely these crimes are far more serious ones than the ones committed before.
We can see that using a wrong way to help the underage offenders may bring more negative impacts to the youngsters, and lead to more serious problem to the society. This may increase the burden for the prison system and society as well. About these problems, the government should make clear guidelines and proper arrangements for underage offenders with balanced values.
It is the responsibility for the government to protect the public and to incarcerate dangerous offenders. However, I think the government should make a balance on their work. Apart from the public interest, the government has the responsibility to help and reform those underage offenders who are helpless and in need too. As we all know prison has its own the functions of rehabilitation, retribution and deterrence. But the evidences of reconviction rate have showed that the present prison system is failing to restore and rehabilitate those youngsters within the imprisonment period. Probably it shows that the government still put their main focus on 'punishment' and they do not do enough work for reforming and rehabilitating the offenders. We should remember the child and young people under 21 are inexperience with the world, they have less education and intelligence to make good choice. They need help and guidance, especially on the time they have already made a wrong choice.
Because of the special role of child, the government should firstly 'fix their brain'. Government should put 'rehabilitation' as their main duty. Within the incarceration period, it is important to let them know why they would be punished. Better rehabilitation work should find ways to ensure the children learn from their mistakes and build up the correct moral values in their prison lives. In some case, these children may have some family problems which their parent are unable to teach them what is right and wrong. We cannot just put them inside the prison cell and do nothing for them. Government can take the role of 'parent' to teach these youngsters understand the appropriate social norms, and do counseling works, like discuss about their wrong behaviors, it can reduce the possibilities of reoffending
It is believed that incarceration alone is no cure, works about 'reform', 'rehabilitate' and 'reintegrate' should be done. We should change them from their hearts, we can make good use of the incarceration period. It can provide a suitable place and develop a proper atmosphere for them to look clear about their future and change themselves with guidance. The government should make clear aims and guidelines for the prison system, it should be a bit different when it deals with child. It is hoped to change the youngsters' behaviors and make them become a productive members in the society. During the incarceration period, prison should design and arrange different treatments and trainings for the youngsters, it can help them to find a proper way of living and have better preparation for their future after release. It can help to reduce the possibilities of reoffending.
Chance is important to everyone. In our criminal justice system, more chance will be given to child and young people who are under 21. To decide whether incarcerate those underage offenders, we should consider the seriousness of offense. We are reminded that the change of society makes the social norms change too. For those who commit minor offenses, the government should make them an easier way to learn from their mistakes. I prefer non-custodial sentences to them. For those underage offenders who involve in serious crime, incarceration is needed. It can make them to take the responsibilities for their faults and it has the deterrent effect to them and society as well. Government should make good use of the incarceration time period, giving them enough counseling and trainings. We should always remember we hoped to 'fix their brain', the government should recognize and offer the needs of the youngsters and bring them back to the right track through the rehabilitation treatments. Using both the sentences of incarceration and community sanction can make a balance between 'punishments' and 'rehabilitation' that can really help the underage offenders. If the government cannot make good arrangements inside the prisons, I think it is meaningless to incarcerate the child and young people as it may make the situation worsen as well.