Help young people learn the right three Rs

Howard Williamson
Tuesday, July 1, 2008

There are always attempts at slick alliteration in the policy field, such as the four Ps that inform The Children's Plan. And there are plenty of alternatives to the traditional three Rs. Two sets are currently pertinent: the Responsibility, Restoration and Re-integration that has framed youth justice over the past decade; and the Respect, Revenge and Revenue that are sometimes used to explain the rise of gang culture and the use of knives and guns. They are not quite mirror images but they are, arguably, close.

Youth justice has taken a hammering in recent weeks, with the assertions by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies that New Labour's reforms have failed, and a similar assessment made in a leaked briefing prepared jointly by the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Children, Schools and Families. These two departments are joint sponsors of the Youth Justice Board.

The two predominant concerns among most commentators on that system have been the excessive use of custody and, on the other hand, the abject failure to enlist sufficient support for young offenders from broader domains of policy: namely education, health and housing.

It is, therefore, no surprise that no significant changes in re-offending rates are reported. It is equally unsurprising that strict supervision orders lead to frequent breaches - which trigger the use of custody - yet the building of confidence in community sentences at the sharp end demands the robust enforcement of any conditions attached.

No wonder then that young people themselves get socialised more deeply into offending subcultures - they spend more time associating with other young offenders and their prospects of moving into more purposeful and legitimate directions are routinely blocked.

The youth justice policy pendulum appears likely to swing again, at least with a louder political emphasis on care and support, during the sentence of the court and beyond. Such an approach will be welcome in most of the "expert" territory - criminal justice and children's charities, although it may be harder to win over tabloid newspaper readers. But the real issue will be converting the rhetoric into a reality that can be delivered by professionals and have meaning for young people.

Everyone knows that any solution to youth crime lies outside of the criminal justice system, including young people. But those young people most immersed within it need good reason to change their ways, or their own three Rs will continue to prevail over those of the political world.

Howard Williamson is professor of European youth policy at the University of Glamorgan, and a member of the Youth Justice Board. Email howard.williamson@haymarket.com.

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