War On Youth Crime Is ‘Demonising Teens’

An expert involved in Tony Blair’s plans to transform the youth justice system has branded the policy a shameful failure. Instead of tackling the causes of youth crime, it was ‘demonising’ and ‘criminalising’ vulnerable young people. The damning verdict by Rob Allen, who has been a member of the Youth Justice Board (YJB) since it was set up a year after Blair’s 1997 election victory, comes in a report seen by The Observer to be published next month. Allen, who heads the International Centre for Prison Studies at King’s College, London, is stepping down after his maximum of two four-year terms on the board.

His call for an overhaul of the system follows the board’s announcement last week that a shortage of places for children in Britain’s overcrowded prisons meant young people would increasingly have to share cells, a move described as ‘dangerous’ by Frances Crook, head of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

“The recent inquiry into the murder of Zahid Mubarek by his cellmate recommended the ending of enforced cell-sharing,” she said. “The vast majority of children in prison are vulnerable and damaged, and we fear this is a dangerous practice.”

To ease the crisis among institutions holding teenage offenders, 279 cells have already been converted for sharing. Rod Morgan, chair of the YJB, said: “The pressures continue to increase. We are at around 97 per cent capacity and haven’t got much room for manoeuvre. We’ve made it plain to all concerned that we are concerned.”

Allen praises programmes ‘working with children at risk of being drawn into crime’ and ‘addressing the personal, social and educational deficits which underlie so much offending’, but adds: “There are other elements which are deeply disappointing: the increasing criminalisation of young people involved in minor delinquency, and the stubbornly high use of custodial remands and sentences.

“And there are some developments of which we really should be ashamed, in particular aspects of the way we lock up children, the demonisation of young people involved in anti-social behaviour and the coarsening of the political and public debate about how to deal with young people in trouble.”

He calls for a ‘fundamental shift’ in approach, paying more than ‘lip service’ to crime prevention as a priority, moving away from a growing tendency to treat ‘misbehaviour by young people as a crime to be punished rather than a problem to be solved’ and rethinking justice policies that ‘make matters worse’ for the ‘most damaged children who present the greatest needs and the highest risks’.

His report says that while a minority of young people are ‘dangerous offenders’ who should be dealt with by the prison authorities, the youth justice portfolio should be taken away from the Home Office and run by the Department for Education.

He points to research showing that many children and young people who end up in custody have special educational needs, suffer from autism, or have social or behavioural difficulties, and in many cases have been excluded from school. ‘Unless basic mainstream services like education and health can respond to the needs of young offenders and children at risk, youth justice ends up picking up the pieces, providing a parallel but second-rate service,’ according to the report by King’s Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.

Allen said yesterday that unless such a fundamental change was put in place, he feared more children and young people would end up in a criminal justice system which was likely to increase, rather than prevent, offending.

The policy lead, he said, was increasingly set by ‘politically driven crackdowns’ on problems such as street crime and anti-social behaviour encouraged by Downing Street and the Home Office. ‘Yes, there are high-risk young offenders, but in many other cases the responses needed involve education, health and child protection. Kids fight, for instance, but the question is whether that is a criminal problem that needs punishment or a social problem to be resolved.’