Opinion: Youth justice – a golden opportunity for the Lib Dems

Youth justice has risen, zombie-like, from the place unloved political issues go to die. In July, the Government published an interim report on The Youth Crime Action Plan, its “comprehensive, cross-government analysis of what the government is going to do to tackle youth crime.”

This prompted vigorous activity from the think-tanks and NGOs, and a predictable silence from the dead who may live again, aka the Conservative Party.

Last week, the Liberal Democrats published data showing that the number of 10 to 12 year olds convicted of a criminal offence rose by 87.2% between 1997 and 2007. Nick Clegg, remarking on the figures, argued that:

It is a disgrace the Government spends eleven times more locking up our young people than it does on backing projects to stop them getting involved in crime in the first place.”

Unless you happen to be keen on nineteenth century penal philosophy, Nick’s comment seems to make excellent sense. I would suggest, however, that it is, at best, carelessly imprecise. At worst, it indicates a refusal to challenge the prevailing conservative narrative on youth crime. Given recent reporting of events in Doncaster, a measured rebuttal is more critical than ever.

Existing Liberal Democrat policy on youth justice, expressed through the ‘A Life Away From Crime’ paper published last year by the party’s Justice and Home Affairs team, has a great deal to offer the electorate.

Most importantly, it commits to using custody for young people only as a “last resort”, noting that community sentences are “…cheaper, more rehabilitative and better at reducing reoffending.” Hear, hear.

What, though, would the practical consequences of the policy be? What exactly is meant by ‘last resort’?

In May 2008, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies published the influential ‘Ten years of Labour’s youth justice reforms: an independent audit’. The report states that, since 2000-01 (when the Youth Justice Board became responsible for commissioning custodial places for those within its remit), spending on youth justice has increased in real terms by a staggering 45 per cent.

The report notes the trend of disinvestment from social responses to youth crime toward criminal responses and questions “…whether resources should instead be directed to social support agencies outside the criminal justice arena.”

One practical consequence of a policy of “last resort”, then, would be a considerable saving. Another should be the explicit commitment to spend money through those agencies which are best-placed to improve outcomes. These agencies are social, not criminal.

As a party we seem reluctant to be explicit about this point; talk of ‘projects’ implies that youth crime can be addressed simply through a few youth clubs, or indeed a ‘volunteer force’.

Perhaps the reticence is tactical? How can we persuade the electorate that to protect communities youth justice budgets should be reduced? By recognising and publicising that ‘penal moderation’ expresses fundamental English values like restraint, tolerance and parsimony. The Howard League for Penal Reform, one of the key voices in the sector, advocated such a position in a recently concluded two-year study of the penal system.

These are also, of course, Liberal values. Youth justice offers us the opportunity to demonstrate the practical success penal moderation could have, and how these policies grow naturally from our core beliefs.

We must argue for radical and lasting change in youth justice. We must demonstrate that this desire for reform is rooted in our history and our values. And we must trust that voters are able to tell the difference between those who merely purport to be progressive and those who genuinely are.

* Tim Connolly is a Lib Dem party member.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • ‘and a predictable silence from the dead who may live again, aka the Conservative Party.’

    That’s a bit rich from a party that’s been in permaneant opposition for 90 years!!!!

  • Sounds like a perfect lib dem issue.

    I bet many would like vandalism cleaned, litter picked and dog mess cleared too.

    Coupled with the correct social services and education of course.

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