'Jail for a day' might just work to deter youth crime

Howard Williamson
Monday, July 21, 2014

Howard Willaimson says very short custodial sentences could potentially reduce reoffending.

First-time offenders begin to adapt to custodial settings after a few days, putting an end to their sense of disorientation. Picture: Peter Crane
First-time offenders begin to adapt to custodial settings after a few days, putting an end to their sense of disorientation. Picture: Peter Crane

It is not often that I agree with the ideas that emerge from The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), though I did contribute to its report on youth gangs, Dying to Belong, and I did admire the way its Broken Britain report a few years ago posited five key "paths to poverty" - family breakdown, educational failure, worklessness and economic dependency, addictions and indebtedness - that demand attention in the 21st century.

Crime and delinquency both overlay and underpin all of these issues. It is no wonder, therefore, that the CSJ has focused considerable attention recently on the criminal justice system, possibly in order to assist Justice Secretary Chris Grayling's "rehabilitation revolution". The latest supposedly bright idea is "jail for a day" for those who breach community sentences, on the grounds that this will ensure that such orders of the court are less likely to be flouted and mocked, which - according to the CSJ - they routinely are.

The notion of jail for a day can itself easily become subject to ridicule and hastily dismissed as one of those quirky, impetuous thoughts advanced by think-tanks and politicians - like former minister Hazel Blears's plan to put young offenders to work cleaning up the streets in high-viz yellow jackets. But let's not reject the latest thought out of hand, for it may have some merit, including for young offenders.

For well over a decade, there has been a professional determination in youth justice to get rid of short sentences, but this received only short shrift from politicians. Nevertheless, there is little doubt that short custodial sentences serve little purpose and are ineffective. No constructive sentence plan, particularly around education and vocational skills, can be put in place for such a short time, yet positive links with the community for the young person are at risk of being severed. So, paradoxically, such sentences are both too short and too long. One young man, Neal Pharoah, wrote in New Society way back in the 1960s after he had been subjected to the "short, sharp shock" of three months in a detention centre (in effect, eight weeks, after remission), that it had been nothing more than a "long, blunt shock".

In the cultures of the delinquent young, there is a vicious delusionary circle that portrays custody as something not to be too worried about. Young offenders anticipating custody do so with a great deal of bravado; young offenders coming out routinely tell their mates that you can "do it standing on your head". What else are they likely to say? The time has to be served and most young people find the need to put on a brave face, if only to avoid the ridicule and bullying that flows from any sign of anxiety or weakness.

But certainly at the start, the brave face is a struggle to construct. Away from home, often for the first time, they are lonely, anxious, scared and nervous in their unfamiliar surroundings. They have no sense of the regime or the routine. The first few days cannot be anything other than a frightening shock to the system.

After those first few days, however, most young people settle in and get on with their sentence. They have no other choice. They make friends, of sorts, or at least align themselves with a supportive sub-group. They learn the ropes and become familiar with the rules and expectations. They can then make some kind of choice about how to respond to the system. And in that way, they re-establish some sense of control. The disorientation is over. Less than a week will have passed.

So, if the intended use of short custodial dispositions is to produce deterrence, rather than retribution or reform, then only very short sentences are likely to have any chance of reducing reoffending among those who have never been inside before.

Of course, it would be far more desirable if we could find alternative, robust ways other than custody of holding these young people to account for their offending behaviour and strengthening their prospects for the future. But when the court views a deterrent effect as a necessary course of action, then putting them away for just a day or two might just be worth some consideration.

Howard Williamson is professor of European youth policy at the University of South Wales

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