Making sense of youth justice
By stephencase, Oct 17 2016 07:29AM
Youth justice is a dynamic study area shaped by a host of influences and influencers (key stakeholders) from political, media, academic, practice and public spheres. Studying youth justice is a challenging and stimulating activity; perhaps the biggest challenge being making sense of the complex, contentious and contradictory knowledge and understandings created by these various influences. I intend to provide you with a series of blogs to help you make sense of this confusion, to make order from chaos. I will give you a framework for understanding the complexity of youth justice. My blogs will outline a clear structure to study of youth justice and a set of arguments that contextualise, demystify and make more accessible this complex topic. I use this structure to guide my youth justice teaching at Loughborough University and as the model for my forthcoming ‘Contemporary Youth Justice’ textbook. Within my Case Studies: Youth Justice blogs (do you get it? I know, it’s clever), I'll unpack the key themes, issues, debates and theories in youth justice from my own subjective, selective (but always evidenced and supported) perspective. My opinions should be used to supplement (not substitute for) your course materials, lecturer advice, practice guidelines and own ideas. I’ll encourage you to study youth justice in a reflective and critical way, to scrutinise knowledge creation (including my arguments!) and to create knowledge of your own. This should be an interactive learning journey.
The Triad of Youth Justice
Youth justice can be understood as a three-part structure or ‘triad’ of definitions, explanations and responses. Firstly, we need to understand how ‘youth justice’ and particularly ‘youth offending’ have been defined - how they have been:
• Socially constructed - created, consolidated, exaggerated and perpetuated by individuals and societies in different places at different times;
• Operationalised - measured and analysed in legal and criminal justice systems, academic research, public opinion surveys and media reports.
Once we have explored the various definitions of youth offending (and youth justice) provided by specific influences at specific times, we can to examine how youth offending has been explained through different academic theories, scholarly arguments, political rhetoric and media representations. It is always interesting to explore differences in explanations between and within these key stakeholder groups and also the degree to which they have been informed by the definitions of ‘youth offending’ that they try to explain. Finally, we must consider how youth offending has been responded to (i.e. via youth justice) - what types of responses (e.g. structures, laws, interventions, programmes, sentences, punishments) constitute youth justice and what kinds of strategies, policies, agendas, principles and philosophies (if any) guide them? Definitions-Explanations-Responses.
The dichotomies of youth justice
At the start of this blog, I promised to simplify/demystify the complexes of youth justice. I hope that my ‘Triad of Youth Justice’ structure of definitions, explanations and responses is a step in the right direction? Let’s take this demystification process further. Youth justice is characterised by several dichotomies or pairs of opposites - essential debates that help you to explore and understand that category more deeply. I’ll address this claim in general terms here and in more detail in future blogs.
Definitions: the ways in which ‘youth offending’ has been defined is a product of an ongoing debate as to whether the behaviour/category is a dynamic social construction (i.e. subjective) or a measurable reality (i.e. objective). This ambivalence reflects historic debates regarding what is ‘crime’. Most theoretical and political explanations take ‘youth offending’ (also known as ‘juvenile delinquency’) for granted as an accepted, objective fact, but its history and development does not support such a lack of criticality, suggesting instead that youth offending is actually a dynamic social construction subject to a variety of academic and non-academic influences. This argument is supported by the historical construction of the ‘child’ as distinct from the ‘adult’ and latterly as distinct from the ‘adolescent’ in cognitive, developmental and physical terms (the child-adult and child-adolescent dichotomies); distinctions that have fed long-standing ambivalence and confusion about how to understand and respond to innocent, vulnerable children who offend, compared to dangerous-threatening adolescents (the angel-devil dichotomy).
Explanations: the way in which youth offending is explained has been similarly dichotomised (fancy academic term - I'll try to avoid these), confused and contradictory. Future blogs will explore how academics and politicians have tried to explain youth offending as the product nature or nurture, deprivation or deprivation, choice or predetermined factors, individual or systemic influences and immorality/irresponsibility or labelling/criminalisation. The answer always seems to have to be one thing or the other, never a suitably complex mixture of both plus other influences. We will also examine how the youth justice knowledge that fuels these dichotomies has been created using research methods that are quantitative or qualitative (the QUAN-QUAL dichotomy) and that seek to understand the real world as constituted by easily measurable, numerical facts or more complex personal constructs/meanings and interpretations (the positivism/realism-constructivism dichotomy). As we critically explore these dichotomies, we are more likely to identify further questions than clear-cut, factual solutions (sorry!), but this is all part of the challenge of youth justice. Which brings us to…. responses.
Responses: the responses to youth offending is the product of a range of academic and (particularly) non-academic influences (e.g. from politics, media, economy), which (to some extent) are shaped by/shape how we define and explain ‘youth offending’. The formal and informal responses that constitute ‘youth justice’ can be explored as a group of dichotomies and debates around (for example) whether to prioritise care or control, welfare or justice, need or risk, community or custodial sentences, protection or punishment and diversion or interventionism. Future blogs will explore these dichotomies, along with the broad dichotomy between the ‘negative’ forms of youth justice (e.g. punishment, risk assessment, interventionism, net-widening) identified by critical youth justice academics such as myself and the more recent ‘positive’ forms of youth justice such as education, restorative justice, children's rights models and my ‘Children First’ approach.
Where to next?
So there we have it - youth justice is a simple triad of mutually-reinforcing, interacting and often competing definitions, explanations and responses. Of course, it's never that simple; there are many connected issues (which we will explore) influencing the triad and its dichotomies (e.g. the fluctuating age of criminal responsibility, the pervading influence of globalisation, cross-cultural differences, economic austerity, ethnicity and gender concerns). It is also feasible that these dichotomies are better understood as ‘continua’ - rather than functioning as black and white, either/or choices or pairs of opposites, they are each more like a dynamic continuum along which definitions, expirations and responses can be positioned at different times. In other words, the dichotomies (e.g. care or control) represent the opposing points of a more fluid scale. By exploring the triad, the dichotomies/continua and their related themes, debates and influences, we will develop a framework for understanding the complexities of youth justice - a framework that should benefit you in your studies and practice.
My next blog will focus on the historical trajectory of definitions of ‘youth offending’, how these have been constructed and what and who has influenced these constructions. The next blog will explore the competing theoretical explanations of youth offending - classical, positivist, critical, realistic and risk factor, followed by a blog looking into the responses to youth offending – the structures, strategies, policies, programs, principles and philosophies that shape and guide youth justice practice. Future blogs would adopt a more specific focus on crucial issues such as the negative ‘new justice’ of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and positive approaches to youth justice.
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Brilliant blog! I would definitely agree that youth offending is a product of many inter-playing factors rather than just one of the many factors mentioned.