the criminology and criminal justice network
Chapter Two – Getting Soft on Young Offenders? A Critical Examination into Public Opinion and Attitudes of the Punishment, Welfare and Control of Youth Crime and Young People.
2.1 - Public Opinion and Attitudes towards the Youth Justice System and Youth Offending Service with Regards to Their Methods of Reducing and Preventing Youth Crime and Criminality:
A common question in England and Wales is whether or not our youth justice system is ‘too lenient or too punitive on young offenders with regards to sentencing’ (Audit Commission. 2004: 47), and whether or not the current systems of achieving justice are efficient enough and to deal with offending; not only in a way that achieves justice for the victim, but also in reducing re offending. This chapter will examine a study conducted by Roberts and Hough (2005) on the sentencing of young offenders in England and Wales and the public’s opinion. The study examines various areas of public concern over the youth justice system and its methods of sentencing young offenders. The main areas of interest are; ‘The public’s perceptions of the Youth Courts, the views and perceptions of sentencing young offenders, the differences in attitudes to youth and adult sentencing, the public’s sentencing preferences in specific cases and the public’s views on the use of restorative sentencing.’ (Hough, M., Roberts, J. 2005: 212).
As explored before, we can see that the public in England and Wales have held many different perceptions of young people, all of which had an influence on the public’s preferences over the sentencing of young offenders. This history has shown us that the use of harsh sentencing, which may have been a derivative of public opinion towards young people, has indirectly contributed to increasing crime rates.
‘In 1982, borstals were renamed youth custody centres and in 1988 were included in a wider network of young offender institutions (YOIs)’ (Muncie, J. 2004a: 283). At this time, as Tayler, et al (1979: 65) cited in Muncie (2004a: 283) argues; ‘younger and more difficult people were being dealt with by more punitive action and tougher punishment’ and ‘partly as a consequence, the rate of youth offending at the time more than doubled, suggesting that the ‘Borstal’ was accentuating the forms of behaviour that it was originally designed to suppress’ (Muncie, J. 2004a: 283). Public perception and opinion can have a huge influence on the government’s and local authority’s approaches to dealing with young people, for example; ‘after great concerns over the perceived rise in levels of crime by young people, the youth justice system in England and Wales took on radical changes with the introduction of the Crime and Disorder act 1998 and the establishment of the Youth Justice Board’ (Hough, M. Roberts, J. 2005: 212). It could be said that the UK government had learned from past failures and as a result had taken a new direction in dealing with young offenders.
The public have always had a fear of crime, and of young people’s potential deviancy and criminality. The public also digest what they feel, see and hear on a day to day basis and their perceptions of crime and youth criminality do not necessarily change with the publication of official statistics, as many people do not have the means to access these publications, or they simply do not relate to what they experience on a daily basis. For example; the British Crime Survey in 2003, revealed that the overall level of crime had significantly ‘decreased by twenty five per cent, and that the risk of being a victim of crime was at an all time low. However the police had detected a two per cent increase in violent crime, and regardless of the significant decrease in crime; the minimal increase in violent crime fuels political expediency and media sensationalism thereby exacerbating the public’s fear of crime’ (Muncie, J. 2004a: 13). Therefore, we should consider whether or not the public hold a fear of all crime, or of one particular area of crime. According to Goldson and Muncie (2006: 178), ‘in 2003/04, the public considered anti-social behaviour to be a huge concern, regardless of the significant fall in overall crime’, “Thus, unlike government pronouncements about the falling crime rates, where similar trends can be observed... there is no such effort where anti-social behaviour is concerned” (Goldson, B., Muncie, J. 2006: 178).
Muncie (2004a: 76) believed that ‘the Crime Prevention Act 1908 was the forerunner for a series of twentieth century reforms within the youth justice system; these reforms were based on the welfare and support of the child. This approach became prominent in juvenile justice policy. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 was one of a number of legislative measures taken by the UK government to improve the punishment and rehabilitation of young offenders with the ‘establishment of Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) and the Youth Justice Board (YJB)’ (Hough, M., Roberts, J. 2005: 212). The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 plays a key role in the sentencing of young people and in dealing with youth criminality, it is also used to ‘promote the use of Restorative Justice over punitive methods in England and Wales’ (Hough, M., Roberts, J. 2005: 212).
Hough and Roberts study found that ‘the public knew very little about youth justice’ and that ‘only 25 per cent of respondents had ever heard of youth offending teams, and only one in eight knew what these teams did’ (Hough, M., Roberts, J. V. no date: 1). In 2006 the Labour government placed great emphasis on enforcing community values and responding to ever changing public opinion by constructing youth justice policy and practise that best mirrors public preference; however ‘the ways in which they are gathered for this purpose are rarely subject to scrutiny’ (Goldson, B., Muncie, J. 2006: 177). This lack of understanding of the Criminal and Youth Justice Systems by the public could have a profound impact on the values of the youth justice system, as new policy and practise stemming from erroneous public opinion could essentially form incorrect and potentially harmful policy and practise. Unfortunately, according to Goldson and Muncie (2006: 177), ‘young people’s perceptions and experiences are largely absent from mainstream documents and are therefore not taken into consideration’.
There is a great deal of evidence that contradicts public opinion in England and Wales with regards to the effectiveness and purpose of the youth justice system as well as the overall level of youth crime. Youth delinquency is seen as ‘different’ and ‘dangerous’, this is shown through the public’s increased fear over the behaviours of young people. However, contrary to popular belief; ‘evidence from self-report surveys indicate that offending and delinquent behaviour is in fact a common and natural part of growing up for most young people, and the majority of whom eventually grow out of this criminal and delinquent stage’ (Bottoms, A., Dignan, J. 2004: 33).
As well as the public’s misconceptions of the potency of youth deviancy, Goldson and Muncie (2006: 210) believed that the fact that ‘children and young people commit a relatively small amount of all recorded crime’ bares little significance to the public as; the public determine the level and severity of crime in their area by what they hear, see and experience for themselves, and the most visible criminal or deviant activity at a local level is that of young people. However, using the perceptions and experiences of the public in determining the level and severity of youth crime should be considered extremely unreliable as; according to Goldson and Muncie (2006: 210) ‘most offences committed by children and young people are those directed at property, and, children and young people only account for around half of all minor crimes’. This is supported by findings in the Audit Commissions ‘Misspent Youth’ (1996: 8-9). It is therefore apparent that the public’s perceptions of youth criminality are extremely inaccurate and potentially harmful to the lives of young people.
The influence of public opinion upon policy making can be seen in the correlation between various pieces of legislation and the rising levels of youth crime. From 1993 to 1997, the levels of youth crime increased dramatically, rising from ‘5,200 to 8,100 young people in the prison system’ (Home Office, 2003, cited in Muncie, J. 2004b: 7). During this time the conservatives were in power as the UK government and a number of policy changes and significant events occurred with regards to dealing with crime and young offenders. These changes and events were;
Tony Blair returned from the United States after various consultations regarding effective practise in dealing with crime. He returned from America with a revolutionary new catchphrase that certainly pleased the public, this catchphrase was; ‘Tough on Crime, Tough on the Causes of Crime’ (BBC. 1993: np). This political position put an emphasis on catching more offenders as well as encouraging partial efforts for assessing and addressing the causes of criminality; however as can be seen by the huge rise of young people in the prison system, this political stance was not an effective one.
In 1993, the youth justice systems rehabilitative and restorative approaches took huge criticism after the brutal murder of James Bulger by ten year olds; Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. Both Thompson and Venables were held in custody until the age of 18 when they were both given life sentences for abduction and murder in June 2001. This act of sheer brutality called into question the effectiveness of the youth justice system as well as causing the public to fear the moral degeneracy of their youth and recasting child offenders as ‘monsters’ and ‘evil’. McNutt (2010: np) notes that; ‘nasty little juveniles, hooligans, freaks, bastards, worthless and evil, were some of the derogatory words used by politicians and the media to describe young people in England and Wales’ at the time of the Bulger murder. The public and the media held vastly different views on this horrific case, for example; Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail newspaper expressed her views on the treatment of child criminals to be sympathetic toward Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, in that “people seemed to be reluctant to acknowledge that they were, in fact, just children” (Phillips, M. 2010: np). Whereas; Amanda Platell, also of the Daily Mail expressed her views on the Bulger murder to be far more punitive and focused on retributive justice; “this pairs rights of rehabilitation took precedence over the rights of James’s parents to see his killers punished and societies rights to be protected from the harm they might inflict on others” (Platell, A. 2010: np).
Unfortunately, these contradictions and misconceptions are numerous and are frequently represented in the media as the exaggeration and creations of youth delinquency and increasing crime rates. However, regardless of the huge amount of evidence indicating a decrease in crime committed by young people, and that which firmly contradicts public opinion, “within the contemporary politics of youth justice policy, all of this becomes secondary to appeasing public concern and securing electoral gain” (Goldson, B., Muncie, J. 2006: 210).
These misunderstandings and misconceptions result in poor public confidence in the youth courts and their many functions. Roberts and Hough (2005: 215) asked “how confident are you in the way that the youth justice system is doing each of the following?” While the proportion of people considering the youth justice system to be doing a satisfactory job remained ‘above 35 per cent’, the majority of respondents believed that in most areas, the youth justice system was failing to provide an adequate service. The two areas that were most lacking in public confidence were; ‘Providing effective punishments to address offending behaviour’ and in ‘Helping parents to be more responsible for the behaviours and attitudes of their children’. Taking into account our 2011 Coalition government’s agendas for the youth justice system; to become focused on restoration and rehabilitation, with the concept of restoration paying little attention to parental responsibility and supposedly lacking in punitive measure, the government have not met these peoples demands.
A common thought among the public, is that the youth justice system is too lenient on young offenders, and it was found that ‘those who believed that the youth justice system was performing poorly in turn believed that the system was often too lenient on young offenders.’ (Hough, M., Roberts, J. 2005: 214). The public’s perceptions of the youth justice systems leniency remained the same in 2003 as it did in the 1998 British Crime Survey (BCS), with only a ‘14 per cent decrease, from 35 per cent in 1998, of respondents perceiving the youth justice system as being ‘much too lenient’ (Hough, M., Roberts, J. 2005: 214).
The notion, of what constitutes the most vital sentencing purpose of the youth courts changes over time, usually this runs parallel to the current political climate. This helps us to understand why youth crime rates vary over time, the most significant indication of which would be during the conservatives rule from 1992 to 1997. During this time, ‘the number of young people in prison rose dramatically’ (Muncie, J. 2004a: 7). In contrast, the Labour party who governed England and Wales from 1997 to 2010 strived to not only meet the public’s demands of retribution and proportionate justice, but to address the root cause of youth criminality by using rehabilitative, restorative and reintergrative approaches to achieving justice. In 2003, the public deemed that; deterrence, proportionality and rehabilitation were all considered to be the most important of all sentencing purposes. It was also found that rehabilitation was significantly favoured for young offenders over adult offenders, with ‘20 per cent of respondents to Hough and Roberts (2005) survey choosing this aim to be of more importance to young offenders compared to 12 per cent for adult offenders’ (Hough, M., Roberts, J. 2005: 217).
Considering the public’s tough sentencing preferences, Hough and Roberts (2005: 220) examined the public’s willingness to impose punitive sentences upon young offenders when varied amounts of information relating to the offence and offender are given to them. The respondents were divided into three groups, each group were then given varied amounts of information on the offence, the offender and his/her circumstances. ‘Version A, included a small amount of information which included; the age of the offender and basic information about the offence’. Version B, included all that was in section A, however provided ‘more detailed information of the offence, for example; the offender had recently lost his job, the offender has been absent from school and has had various warnings from the police’. Finally, ‘Version C gave in depth detail of the offence as well as describing voluntary restorative steps that the offender had already made while expressing his own remorse’ (Hough, M., Roberts, J. 2005: 220). The results from this study indicated that public’s willingness to punish punitively ‘wanes significantly’ when they are provided with more detailed information, as given in versions B and C.
It is common place for society to hold erroneous views of the youth justice system and the sentencing of young offenders as youth crime and criminality is often within the public eye far more than most other forms of crime. This is supported in findings from the 1998 British Crime Survey (BCS), which showed that ‘eight in ten people thought that sentencing within the youth justice system was too lenient’, this was the ‘same proportion in the 1996 British Crime Survey’ (Mattinson, J., Mirrlees-Black, C. 2000: viii). To conclude, public opinion can significantly influence the development of policy and practise within the youth justice system. However the many misconceptions and stereotypes that the public hold over young people and youth criminality can produce incorrect and potentially harmful policy. It is therefore apparent that more needs to be done to appease public concern over the deviancy and criminality of young people in England and Wales, and more needs to be done to reduce the public’s willingness to apply such harmful labels to young people.
 Borstals were early youth custody centres, the equivalent to a youth jail.
 See Appendix 4
 See Appendix 2 for the full Home Office (2003) Prison Statistics for England and Wales 2002
 See MORI (2003), cited in, Hough and Roberts (2005: 215) for a table on public confidence in the youth justice system.
 See Appendix 2
 See Appendix 3 for results table of ‘Public sentencing preferences, cases with and without restorative steps’.
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