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Punishing young offenders – where did it go wrong?

What is really going on out there with young people? Why is there such violence and resulting deaths?

I attended the Youth Court some months ago with a young client of mine. While waiting to be called into court for his sentencing hearing, a male entered the court waiting area and started verbally abusing him, shouting profanities … threatening his life. This was witnessed by four solicitors. The situation calmed down and the other young person (aggressor) was told to leave and come back for the afternoon court session. You could see it had rattled my client as he kept looking outside. He became very upset and nervous but repeated that he was ok.

Later we went into court, the client was sentenced and we walked out of court. My client went a little head of me. All of sudden I saw a group of youths chase and jump on my client, shouting that they were going to stab him. I was pulled back immediately, the police attended and by some miracle my client was able to get into the probation centre next to the court without any injury. It was clear how terrified he was and I too was scared for him.

Recently, in a 90 minute period we’ve had two shootings and six stabbings. This and other incidences have prompted national newspapers to focus on rising violent crime levels, especially in London. With over 50 people murdered in London so far in 2018 and police finding more weapons and more gangs on the streets, serious concerns over violent street crime have prompted newspapers to ask why our children are killing each other and what solutions there are to London’s violent crime problem?

Our view is that harsh criminal justice approaches such as mandatory imprisonment simply do not work; the fear of being attacked is greater than the fear of prison. In fact, prison only makes things worse and aggravates the situation. There is no support. Young people are instead locked away for hours on end and surrounded by the very people they are scared of.

We are told that the Metropolitan Police have introduced targeted patrols with extra stop and search powers for areas worst-affected by knife crime. This causes immediate tension and lack of trust.
We are also told and hope that this will be intelligence led. However this may lead to individuals being unfairly targeted because of who they associate with or who they communicate with on social media, despite the fact that many will not be involved in the terrible violent confrontations taking place on the streets at the moment.

We need to really look at what are we trying to do:

  1. Stop young people from having knives, or
  2. Prosecute them for having a knife, thus getting into the vicious cycle of criminal justice.

People are surely missing the issue rather than looking at the root of the problem. Young people don’t want to be in these situations. Some have fallen off track, some are being influenced by others and some are just trying get on, in a bad area and can’t escape.

Apparently police made more than 900 arrests during Operation Winter Nights in November and December, taking more than 350 weapons off London’s streets. This does not address the problem, it is simply putting a bandage over it. Statistics like these, pumped out all the time, are not addressing the root cause that young people will keep getting knives for protection because they are scared and do not know the full consequences.

What we need to do is to improve the relationship between young people and the police; to provide young people with opportunities rather than simply punishing them.

At the beginning of this month, the Home Office published its Serious Violence Strategy which sets out its response to serious violence and recent increases in knife crime, gun crime and homicide. For the first time it does look at the root causes of the problem and how to support young people to lead productive lives away from violence.

Despite the protestations of those in government, there is no doubt that the cutbacks to local authority budgets as a result of austerity have impacted and resulted in the loss or reduction of locally based youth workers, centres and clubs, where the issues of gang crime and violence could be discussed and addressed at its root in the local community, before it escalates to the level it has now reached. The supervising and guiding workers in the Youth Offending Service and National Probation Service have had their budgets and size of their operations slashed. The sell-off of the probation supervision of so called low risk offenders to the private sector, Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRC ) has been a disaster. The promises of experienced ex–offenders meeting prisoners on release and helping guide them to accommodation and decent work, as promised by the then Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling never materialised. Many of those supervised by such companies have complex needs in relations to issues such as addiction, housing, mental health etc but are now supervised by reporting in by telephone as the locally based probation officers are closed and sold off.

Young people are calling out for and are desperate for help. Both parents and the state need to re-engage with young people and get to understand their frustrations and fears. They live in an uncertain world where their anxieties about their future lives in relation to work, homes and personal safety are resulting in an escalating number of cases of adolescent depression ,drug misuse and violence.

We must not give up on young people, but help and support them to give up the pointless and misguided violence. Just locking them up is not the answer, if we want them to move away from gang allegiance and the resulting violence and back into becoming decent members of their local communities and society as a whole.