Youth Justice: the magistrate’s view

just over 100 years ago a Liberal government decided that young people should no longer be routinely tried in the same courts as adults. Thus was born the juvenile, now youth, court system in England and Wales. During the last hundred years much has changed in penal policy, both corporal and capital punishment have been abolished, and the prevention of re-offending has taken on a greater importance over the punishment of offenders. There is also a live debate about the minimum age of criminal responsibility.

For some, magistrates, and especially lay magistrates, sometimes seem like the ogres in the system. They can be characterised as modern day versions of Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen, shouting ‘off with their heads’ at every opportunity. There are many Liberal Democrats who are Justices of the Peace, to give magistrates their other title, and many are specialist youth magistrates who are well aware how inaccurate such a caricature is of reality. Consider the debate about custody. There were just three young people under the age of thirteen in custody in December 2010, the latest date figures are available for. Two of these will be the boys sentenced last May in a courtroom at the Old Bailey for rape and sexual offences following a high profile trial. In total, less than 100 under-15s were in custody. However, that number rises sharply to over 1,000 seventeen year olds. Of the 1,900 under 18s in secure accommodation of any type, only 107, or just over 5% were female. Over a quarter of all young people in custody came from London, and within that total many came from a small number of south London boroughs.

Magistrates are the last stop on a long chain of dealing with young people who break the rules of society. Rule breaking frequently starts in school, often associated with attendance problems, and frequently with under-achievement. Indeed, it was a concern about how we trained teachers to be aware of how they can help prevent challenging young people becoming criminals that led me to become a magistrate over 20 years ago.

Much has improved over the past twenty years, with more diversion from court for offenders unlikely to commit further offending: the notion of restorative justice is helping offenders of all ages face up to the consequences of their actions, although even here the victim’s needs sometimes seem to take second place to that of the offender in some people’s minds. How should a shopkeeper continually plagued with shoplifting and racial taunts from local youngsters be expected to react on receiving his third letter of apology?

When dealing with more persistent low level offenders magistrates face the same problem as dealing with adults. Does repeat low level offending merit more severe sentencing or should the offence itself determine the punishment? This is a dilemma politicians have agonised over for the whole time I have been a magistrate. Interestingly, we are clear that repeat offending in driving offences eventually leads to disqualification, a much severer penalty than the index offence alone merits in most cases. Taking the same line with shoplifting or criminal damage is more controversial. But, sentencers need to know what is the government’s view is on the issue in order to be able to carry out society’s will effectively.

The same dilemma affects the debate about the age of criminal responsibility. Secondary schools are clear most pupils know the difference between right and wrong, and have rules where transgression can lead to punishment. Indeed, the discussion over the need for notice periods before a detention can be imposed is being debated as part of the Education Bill currently before parliament.

Take as an example a case of homophobic or racial bullying, or ‘causing harassment, alarm or distress’ as it might be regarded by the law. If the age of criminal responsibility is raised to 14, young victims will be protected whilst at school by the threat of punishment for the perpetrators who the schools has presumably decided know right from wrong. But, outside the school gate, society will have concluded that the bullies are too young to know what they are doing, and so avoid punishment even if they continue to behave inappropriately. Laws are there partly to protect the weak, and even though all young people are weak, some may be in weaker positions than others.

This is not an easy issue to decide, and magistrates are used to balancing punishment, deterrent sentences, and the aim of reducing re-offending as well as ensuing that only the guilty are punished. For that reason, I am sure most feel they have a place to play in reflecting society’s views on dealing with young people. To set up another tier of ‘people’ as the motion for Sheffield requires will be to set up the need for another body of individuals required to do what youth courts already do well. By all means let a coalition with Liberal Democrat ministers rename youth courts, and even create a new structure, but don’t throw out the expertise and genuine concern of most youth magistrates for the young people they see just because some people portray them as unfeeling ogres.

Professor John Howson JP writes here in a personal capacity. He has been a magistrate for over 20 years and President of the Liberal Democrat Education Association for over ten years.

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  • Keith Browning 8th Mar '11 - 5:42pm

    I hear a lot from those in authority but very little from the ‘offenders’ themselves.

    I would ask the ‘offenders’ two things.

    Why do they do what they do?

    What measures will persuade them to stop them doing it?

    Surely it is the answers to these questions that should direct policy.

    I would suggest that too many decisions are being made without asking the customer!

  • Megi Rychlikova 8th Mar '11 - 7:21pm

    As a court reporter, I have many years experience of covering youth cases both before the Youth Court and the Crown Court. Young offenders tend to be a mix of those who do not have the maturity to appreciate the full wrongness of what they are doing, those for whom crime and being chased all over the local estate by the police is a game and/or an adrenalin kick and those who truly have their ideas of right and wrong warped by their upbringing/environment/experiences. Each group requires a very different approach to stop them reoffending. It needs experience to decide correctly which group an individual offender belongs to and therefore what approach to take with them. I don’t think the Sheffield motion fully appreciates this or the everyday practicalities of dealing with young offenders.

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