Pippa Goodfellow: Rethinking ‘Justice’ for Young People
This welcome report provides a comprehensive analysis of the context in which violence has been exacerbated in recent years, leaving communities feeling unsupported and unsafe. It also highlights the potential to bring about lasting change through investment in communities, through early help, access to opportunity and addressing structural inequalities. There is no question that the future response must address the issues and recommendations raised in this report, which should serve as a pressing call to action for change.
Alongside this focus on early intervention and prevention, the role of the criminal justice system must be considered – but with a focus on minimising its use rather than as the source of long-term solutions. The mantra that ‘we can’t arrest our way out of the problem’ is backed up by a growing body of evidence that diverting children away from the formal youth justice system reduces offending and brings about more positive sustainable outcomes. Moves towards enforcement and punitive measures that are not grounded in evidence risk hampering positive developments in preventative work. The introduction of criminal justice measures should be thought through carefully and cautiously, to guard against damaging and counterproductive consequences.
The commitment to funding 20,000 additional police officers is, on the face of it, a welcome development. But an effective public health approach to addressing violence will require a simultaneous commitment to investing in community-based and child-centred policing, rather than a narrow focus on enforcement and stop and search. Additionally, if these extra police officers are successfully recruited, then other public services including youth offending teams, youth work, mental health and social care will need additional resources. Police must be able to signpost and divert the young people they encounter into early help services with sufficient capacity to provide them with the necessary support.
The imminent introduction of Knife Crime Prevention Orders exemplifies the absence of an evidence informed and joined-up approach. They did not receive the level of consultation, parliamentary scrutiny, or impact assessment appropriate for legislation with such wide-reaching potential, and were rushed through despite a wide coalition of professional bodies and voluntary sector organisations expressing strong concerns. There is no evidence that they will prevent harmful behaviour or address the root causes of knife carrying. If it is suspected, not certain, that they have carried a knife twice in two years, children as young as twelve can be given an order lasting up to two years. The order can stipulate where they go, when they have to be indoors and what they can look at and say on social media. Breaching that civil order could see them getting a prison sentence of up to two years.
Neither is there any evidence that the threat of custody acts as a deterrent for young people caught up in violence. Since the introduction of mandatory minimum custodial sentencing for weapon possession offences in 2015, numbers of children and young adults convicted of possession or threatening offences involving knives or offensive weapons have risen. Sending children to prison is damaging, harmful and has a criminogenic effect. Custody should be reserved for the most severe offences, where there is a serious risk of harm to the public and all other options have been fully explored.
The Serious Violence Bill will introduce of a new legal duty on agencies to share information and work together to combat serious violence. But without widespread investment in additional resources this implementation is wholly inappropriate for services already tasked with rising demand and shrinking budgets. Will the information that agencies are forced to share count as ‘intelligence’ that could be used as justification for stop and searches, or to impose a Knife Crime Prevention Order? Rather than promoting early intervention and diversion, the duty could have the unintended consequence of creating a dragnet, pulling more children into the criminal justice system, and further marginalising them.
Violence affecting young people is the product of complex and deep-rooted issues within our society, but it is not inevitable. As is clearly demonstrated in this report, effective violence prevention means dealing with this complexity, including young people in the development of solutions, and investing in organisations and programmes rooted in the communities that are most affected. There is no need to reinvent the wheel, but agencies are often working without the strategic support and resources they need to be effective. We need a system that receives the recognition and funding it deserves, enabling appropriate and holistic support for children and young people where and when it is needed to keep them safe.
Pippa Goodfellow is Director of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice