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Thinkers' Corner - Youth Crime and Punishment

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Image: York Student Think Tank
Image: York Student Think Tank

Last Thursday saw the topic of youth crime and punishment. The presentation had a particular aim to highlight the use of custodial sentences for children in the UK. This topic has arisen from years of the welfare versus punitive divide on the approach in responding to children's criminalised behaviours.

Firstly the presentation began with opposing views on custody with the welfare argument stating "prisons are stifling environments which prevent children from flourishing" to the more punitive response of "we must not forget that a custodial sentence is a punishment" claimed by the UK Government. Thus attempting to show a broad spectrum of views about how children behaving criminally should be dealt with.

Before delving into policy responses it was noted for the need to seek a deeper understanding of the definitions of children and crime, as this arguably varies across cultural and social contexts. Focusing on the UK, the age of criminal responsibility is currently aged 10 and this was a striking point to be made when outlining that it has the lowest age of responsibility across Europe. Something to consider when deciding how a child is constructed in our society, as it conflicts largely with social psychological studies.

The policy changes at first sought to be a positive, until it was recognised that the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child (1989) had opposing arguments about the treatment of children who commit crime. They strive for universal welfare and protection for children and envision a normalisation of children's behaviour. Between 1995 and 2008 the UNCRC had reported on the UK youth justice system with comments that age of criminal responsibility needs to be raised and that the UK attempt to demonise children's behaviours with custody being used too commonly.

Since 2008 it seems there may be another glimmer of hope as the number of children in custody has steadily dropped. Nevertheless, the fall in numbers came to be regarded as a correlation with the Governments recent attack on reducing public expenditure, bringing questions of their legitimacy to the willingness of welfare and protection of children.

Essentially the current custodial population compromises of 939 males and 32 females, with an average time spent in prison being 109 days, experiencing high levels of reported violence. One third of the population are from a state care background and the majority experienced school exclusion, neglect, abuse and mental health problems. The concerns raised were that the use of custody is impacting the most socially deprived children, and the short term sentences being imposed have huge negative implications for the individual within society upon release. Ultimately it could be seen as a Government failure to meet the welfare needs of socially deprived children.

In the post presentation discussion it was unanimously agreed that the age of criminal responsibility is too low and that custody is most commonly used for those children in marginalised communities. Highlighting the classic problem of poverty and inequality, will there ever be an alternative to punishing the poor?

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