Punishment for young criminals is not always the answer

Angus 2018

A headline like this may sound like some sort of so called "lily-livered" stance - one I know many don't support. But this is not me trying to appease the more liberal in our society; it is fact - traditional punishments do not always work for some who break the law.

Recently, Justice Secretary David Gauke set out his vision for a "smart" justice system to reduce reoffending; re-thinking how punishment should look in modern times.

This is timely, especially when figures reflect that nationally Wiltshire and Swindon still have considerably higher rates for youth "First Time Entrants" into the criminal justice system.  The volume of children arrested in Wiltshire and Swindon is declining, but we are still issuing a high number of cautions to so-called first timers.  

This needs to change; to echo the Justice Secretary's vision - we need to think again about how we deal with certain criminals, especially the young who possibly can be saved from slipping into a life of crime if they can get help and support early enough. 

As Police and Crime Commissioner and Chair of the Wiltshire Criminal Justice Board (WCJB), we have been working for some time to do support those who find themselves in the criminal justice system, through partnership working.  But, in the past month we have seen the introduction of a new system and I feel this is a major sea-change in the way first-time young offenders are dealt with.

On 4 February, a multi-agency decision panel for youth cautions, with an emphasis and focus on restorative justice, engagement and intervention, was launched.

Before this date, the current decision to issue a Youth Caution would have sat with a Sergeant who would have made the decision based on their policing experience and usually without consulting anyone else.  It was a very black or white process.

But this new panel attempts to redefine how some young offenders are treated and in turn changes their experience of the criminal justice system.

The panel will sit weekly and provide youths, coming to the notice of the police for the first time, the option of alternative disposals without unnecessarily criminalising them by giving them a youth caution.    

Alternatives like one of my commissions, Youth Restorative Justice - where the offender and victim are given the opportunity to meet; helping the victim come to terms with the offence and the offender to positively address what they did.

More often or not the youngster who starts out committing crimes does so for a number of complex reasons - they're not just "a bad 'un" as society wishes to label them.  A broken home life - perhaps tainted by domestic abuse, mental health issues and anger management problems are some of the many reasons which can lead a young person to break the law.

And a punishment like a Youth Caution can then become the first step on the slippery slope of crime; and it becomes cyclical; they get a youth caution, they get a criminal record, for some it may become some sort of badge of honour so they think there's no hope so then offend again - and so it continues.

The new panel system will attempt to try and break that destructive cycle by giving first time offenders an alternative - a way out of not entering the criminal justice system in the first place should they see fit to take that opportunity.

The vocal "armchair brigade," who often moan that justice has gone soft may see this as an easy option.  I can assure you it's not.  The young person concerned will have to address their offending; they will have to under-go work with partnership agencies to deal with those issues which led them to commit a crime in the first place.  

And, don't forget, this won't work for everyone.  The panel system recognises that and if something like a Youth Caution is required then that will be handed down.  Traditional punishments have to be used for some people - and they are there for the police and justice system.  Sometimes there is no other way. 

But this "new way of working" gives some vulnerable perpetrators a chance, a chance to see the error of their ways and hopefully correct their path before it's too late and a life of crime is all they know. 

And the police won't be working in isolation - maintaining a pathway for young people is not something they can do alone.  It involves education, health and wellbeing, employment and social inclusion too. 

To paraphrase David Gauke, if we are going to evolve the disposal of justice and ultimately reduce reoffending then we have to seek smarter alternatives - this Multi Agency Board is a new working example of that.

I look forward to seeing the results.

David Gauke article:  https://www.gov.uk/government/news/justice-secretary-david-gauke-sets-out-long-term-for-justice


Published on Tuesday 5 March 2019.