Professor Steve Case

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Steve Case

By stephencase, Oct 24 2016 08:53AM


In my previous blog, Negative youth justice: Creating the youth crime ‘problem’, I offered a somewhat scathing and sceptical perspective on contemporary youth justice, particularly how youth offending (understood through a risk perspective) has become a political stick with which to beat children and young people. It is my contention that the governmental youth justice project, until recent progressive developments (e.g. AssetPlus, enhanced diversionary mechanisms), has adopted an excessively negative focus and a micro-managed approach that has stifled practitioner creativity and artificially restricted explanations of youth offending and responses to ‘youth offenders’. It's well worth re-reading my previous critical dissection of the Youth Justice System (YJS) to give you context for my subsequent arguments (www.cycj.org.uk/negative-youth-justice-creating-the-youth-crime-problem/). Even as an avowed critical youth justice academic, I’m constantly shocked by the damaging, criminalising and dehumanising portrayal and treatment of children and young people who offend by contemporary youth justice systems; by the absence of foundational principles for practice and by the marginalisation of children and young people from youth justice processes. I'm even more shocked by the continued obsession with risk as a guiding concept for youth justice practice (Haines and Case 2009 - https://www.routledge.com/Understanding-Youth-Offending-Risk-Factor-Reserach-Policy-and-Practice/Case-Haines/p/book/9781843923411) and by government belligerence and resistance to progressive and principled systemic change. The suggestion (to me) is that risk assessment and intervention is a ‘no-brainer’ solution to the alleged youth crime problem, despite compelling international evidence that diversion, restorative justice and promotional interventions have a more substantive and sustainable impact on the extent and nature of youth offending and the quality of children's lives. Regardless of the wealth of contrary evidence (risk bad, positive approaches good, YJS succeeding in reducing first-time entrants and custody levels), the newer version of the new Conservative government (Theresa May as Prime Minister, Liz Truss as Justice Secretary) appears to want a newer version of the new Conservative approach to youth justice (new government, new idea – a recurring theme in youth justice). The Charlie Taylor review of the YJS commissioned by the Conservatives has been placed in stasis, as have the other progressive intentions of previous Justice Secretary, but notorious Brexiteer, Michael Gove (e.g. problem-solving courts, sweeping prison reforms). So, the new model is on hold until a newer new model can be identified. My proposal, therefore, is for a radical reorientation of youth justice through a series of positive practice principles that coalesce to form a newer new model: Positive Youth Justice: Children First, Offenders Second. Positive Youth Justice (PYJ) is the solution to the youth crime ‘problem’ because it deproblematises and normalises offending by children and young people, viewing it as an everyday behaviour requiring supportive and appropriate responses. In other words, PYJ doesn’t treat youth crime as a new or growing problem, so doesn’t introduce methods that sustain and exacerbate it. Better still, PYJ is evidenced (tick!) and economical (double tick!), thus attractive to government and compelling for local authorities when the localisation/devolution agenda comes to pass.


What is Positive Youth Justice?

On April 1, 2000, Swansea Youth Offending Team (YOT) officially came into being under the Crime and Disorder 1998 (as did all other YOTs in England and Wales). On the same day, the organisation welcomed a fresh-faced, open-minded young PhD student from the local university, giving him an office and open access to all of their data, practitioners, young people, families and networks. Sixteen years, a couple of books and many research articles later, I’d like to tell you what that young researcher found at Swansea, across Wales and beyond on his journey to the cynical, opinionated professor that I am now! In my view, Swansea practiced a distinctive form of youth justice that was underpinned by a local commitment to promoting positive behaviours and outcomes for young people through the strategies, programmes and projects of statutory and voluntary agencies (not just the YOT) and driven by an innovative and brave YOT manager called Eddie Isles. Further support for this approach came from an equivalent national (Welsh Government) commitment to promotional and entitlements-based social policy for children and young people and an evolving research relationship with Professor Kevin Haines (my then PhD supervisor and perennial mentor) who had developed the ‘children first’ principle of youth justice with Professor Mark Drakeford (Haines and Drakeford 1998). I was blessed with a confluence of positive circumstances. I became immersed in a highly progressive local youth justice context in a highly progressive national social policy context, guided by highly progressive youth justice professionals. Our University-YOT research partnership until the untimely retirement of Eddie Isles in 2012 provided experiences and produced evidence that enabled us to identify a coherent, progressive alternative model of youth justice. A subsequent working relationship with the groundbreaking Surrey Youth Support Service (YSS) and emerging dialogues with other progressive YOTs (e.g. Oldham. Kent, Bedfordshire) has provided further evidence of the effectiveness and impact of positive youth justice principles in practice. The Positive Youth Justice model can be divided into five easy pieces; five clear principles for practice: children first, positive promotion, engagement, diversion and evidence-based partnership.


1. Children First

All youth justice practice should put children first, prioritising their status as a ‘child’ and its associated (limited) maturity, capabilities, abilities and power above any master status of ‘offender’ conferred by their behaviour. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as anyone below the age of 18, so by this measure, any ‘young offender’ is essentially a child - vulnerable, innocent (although degree of culpability is moot and variable across the 10 to 17 age range) and in need of support and protection by and from adults. Whether they offend or not, children are not fully developed or empowered adults with the same cognitive, social and economic resources enjoyed by adults, so they should not be treated as such (Haines and Case 2015 - https://policypress.co.uk/positive-youth-justice). Rather than ‘adulterising’ (treating as adults) and ‘responsibilising’ (holding fully responsible for her actions) children who offend, youth justice responses should be child-friendly and child-appropriate. Offending behaviour by children should be seen as only one part of their much broader identity and so responded to in holistic, multi-agency and integrated ways (cf. the Scottish Whole Systems Approach), rather than dealt with in isolation by siloed, offender and offence-focused YOTs. Only then can those responses hope to be valid, meaningful and sustainable in the real lives of children and young people experiencing problems. Every other principle of positive youth justice practice links to and reinforces this children first, child-friendly commitment.


2. Positive Promotion

Youth justice strategy and practice should promote positive behaviours, outcomes, services and opportunities for all children the YJS (and when they move beyond it) as priority, rather than pursuing a narrow focus on preventing risk-based negative outcomes. The positive, promotional approach is proven ‘effective’ practice (not in the governmental sense necessarily) for improving positive outcomes such as increasing access to rights/entitlements and participation in prosocial school and community activities (Haines and Case 2015 - https://policypress.co.uk/positive-youth-justice). Crucially, positive promotion can also reduce the negative outcomes prioritised by the dominant negative prevention- and risk-focused youth justice (e.g. offending, reoffending, substance use, exposure to risk), so problematic offending-related issues are not ignored, but instead they are addressed in a principled, promotional, children first manner. Surrey YSS provides an evidenced application of child-friendly, integrated positive promotion through their substitution of AssetPlus with of the Common Assessment Framework as a needs-led means of pursuing positive outcomes such as increased participation and engagement with education, training and skills development (cf. Bryrne and Case 2016 - http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/SC-11-2015-0036).


3. Engagement

Children are part of the solution to youth crime, not part of the problem. The much-neglected perspectives of practitioners can contribute further to this solution. Positive Youth Justice encourages practitioners and policy makers to work in partnership with these children to promote their interests, needs, rights and views as paramount throughout youth justice processes. Positive Youth Justice moves practice beyond the deficit-focused model of negative youth justice (which can punish children who offend for their individual failings) and towards a more constructive, child-appropriate approach in which children are rewarded for their achievements. Consequently, adult practitioners view themselves as working with and for the children with whom they engage, rather than as representatives of other interest groups (for example, the YJS, community, victims). The priority for staff is to engage closely and regularly with children. This is the over-arching philosophy of most YOT practitioners anyway, so the PYJ model simply provides them with a coherent set of structures and principles to facilitate this goal. It is crucial, therefore, that children who come into contact with the YJS are facilitated (by adult practitioners) to express their views on issues that affect them, enabled to participate equitably in decision making regarding their futures, and that access to their universal entitlements as set out in progressive policy statements and international conventions is promoted. These features coalesce to produce a model of delivering youth justice that can be viewed as legitimate to children (i.e. moral, fair, deserved, equitable), thus increasing the likelihood of them engaging with (investing in, believing in, committing to) the approach. In this way, children’s engagement with youth justice practice and practitioners goes deeper than the fundamentals of voluntarism, trust, respect and fairness (although these remain essential building blocks of the engagement relationship) and moves towards more positive notions of partnership, reciprocity, investment and legitimate participation in decision-making processes.


4. Diversion

Children should be diverted out of the formal YJS and into positive, promotional, progressive interventions. Progressive diversion can promote positive outcomes by (adults) enabling children to access constructive activities and interventions that promote success, achievement, capacity-building and access to entitlements and support services. Diversion can also stimulate reductions in negative outcomes (the measures by which YOT performance is assessed) such as entering the YJS for the first time, obtaining a criminal record, reoffending and reconviction, along with other indicators of collateral damage such as punishment, labelling and criminalisation. The effectiveness of progressive diversion has been evidenced by the Bureau model, which has now been rolled out across Wales (Haines and Case 2015 - https://policypress.co.uk/positive-youth-justice), along with the impressive (system leading) reductions in first-time entrants into the YJS achieved by Surrey YSS (cf. Bryrne and Case 2016 - http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/SC-11-2015-0036). The Bureau incorporates systems management (child-focused decision-making at all stages of the youth justice process) and partnership between practitioners (e.g. police, youth justice staff, teachers), children and families during assessment (prolonged, holistic assessment process consulting with all relevant parties), decision-making/sentencing and intervention planning. These shared processes emphasise the positive, promotional elements of consultation, agreement and legitimacy (fair, moral, justified treatment of children).


5. Evidence-based partnership

Responses to children in the YJS should be underpinned by genuine, engaging partnership working that is evidence-based. Partnership is critical to the success of prevention of offending and this partnership needs to be evident at the strategic level and in practice and delivery. The development and implementation of reflective child-friendly youth justice services and interventions should be guided by evidence-based partnership between children and their families (cf. the ‘Team Around the Child/Family’ model that is applied in many localities across the UK), youth justice practitioners, policy makers and academic researchers (cf. the work of Greater Manchester Youth Justice University Partnership). Such a meaningful partnership approach guards against the government predilection for privileging risk-based, pseudo-psychological, Americanised, offender-focused ‘what works’ approaches – what Rod Morgan (former chair of the Youth Justice Board) dubbed ‘programme fetishism’. It seems obvious to me that instead of this obsession with off the shelf, fashionable programmes, effective youth justice should be developed in partnership with children, the very group that they are aimed at and targeted on. All too often children are seen as a problem to be fixed, rather than a resourceful part of the solution to their own circumstances. Similarly, practitioners are cast as the fixers of the problem, but given insufficient space, time or tools to employ their expertise and discretion and to reflect on, enhance and innovative children first, positive practice. Therefore, the generation of evidence to inform and shape youth justice practice should be open-minded, reflexive and bottom-up, rather than restricted, prescriptive and top-down, developed in locally-sensitive partnership with children and other key stakeholders.


Conclusion: From negative to positive youth justice

The five easy pieces of Positive Youth Justice constitute five not so easy principles to employ in everyday youth justice practice that is heavily-managed, prescribed and directed by central government. However, the gathering pace of public service reform and the potential for local devolution of policy and practice (albeit more motivated by economic austerity and political expedience rather than child- and practitioner-focused principles) offers fresh hope that space is emerging for localised discretion and mediation of government directives. The local mediation of practice prescriptions to reflect certain principles of Positive Youth Justice is already evident and growing in many areas, although the wholesale (not piecemeal) adoption of the model and its inevitable break from statutory (negative) youth justice requirements is perhaps most developed in Surrey YSS. The challenge for local youth justice remains one of negotiating the messy complexities of real life - reconciling a positive, principled and progressive practice agenda with entrenched government requirements to pursue prescribed prevention and risk agendas. The negotiation and reconciliation of the prescriptive negative with the progressive positive must also balance children first ways of working with statutory requirements to address victims’ needs to to ensure public protection – both of which necessitate and deserve bespoke practice additional to child-focused responses. These agendas do not need to be in competition – they can be complementary. Prioritising the child and children first principles across all youth justice practice will benefit children (obviously), families, communities, victims and the public through reduction (of first-time entrants, offending, reoffending, custody) and promotion (of positive, prosocial, sustainable behaviours and outcomes) – an evidence-based, effective practice model fit for the 21st century.


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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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By stephencase, Oct 6 2016 11:14AM

Contemporary youth justice has seriously lost its way. An overview of international youth justice systems indicates a melting pot of strategies, structures, perspectives and interventions often bereft of clear purpose and guiding principles. There is no Occam’s Razor for youth justice, no KISS mentality (keep it simple and straightforward). Instead, we have an amorphous mass of multiple aims and methods desperately lacking consensus, continuity and identity – a bulimic system constantly pursuing improvement (often in the form of increased efficiency) through addition rather than reflection. The Youth Justice System (YJS) of England and Wales, for example, illustrates a long-term government project that has painted itself into a corner and exhausted ideas for change, although not the compulsion for change. In the process, it has (to some extent at least) manufactured, sustained and exacerbated the very youth crime ‘problem’ it seeks to address. This blog will explore the reasons for and impact of the negative youth justice that characterises contemporary youth justice systems; a youth justice approach that has sustained and exacerbated the ‘problem’ of youth crime. In my follow-up blog, I’ll offer a progressive solution to the youth crime ‘problem’: Positive Youth Justice.


Creating the youth crime ‘problem’

The concept of ‘youth offending’ is a dynamic social construction – a creation dictated by what society chooses to define as ‘youth’ and ‘offending’ at any given point in time. Explanations of youth offending are influenced by these definitions. Explanations ‘should’ inform response to youth offending (i.e. youth justice). But youth justice is seldom this simple, as I have discovered on my frequent trips out of the ivory tower and into the messy complexity of the youth justice arena. The definitions and explanations of youth offending and the youth justice responses to it often seem to consist of what’s left on the battlefield after frequent clashes between and within political arenas, the media, academia and public opinion. Practice has to pick up the pieces; to make order from the chaos. Competing, contradictory and volatile key stakeholder influences have invented and inflated the extent and nature of youth offending for centuries – creating a ‘problem’ that is allegedly new, increasing and not being solved by current practice, whatever historical period you choose to examine (a recurring theme in youth justice).


In broad terms, the journey to the youth crime ‘problem’ began in the 18th century (post-Industrial Revolution) when society first noticed differences between little adults (children) and adults and so resolved that the ‘child’ should be considered distinct and be treated differently. In the 19th century, the ‘adolescent’ (‘youth’) was identified (largely through the work of positivist criminologists) as an older form of child with physical and psychological differences disposing them to crime. With the creation of the adolescent, offending by (older) children became easier to explain and differentiated responses easier to justify. Society was able to resolve its ambivalence towards ‘normal’ children and offending children through a series of dichotomies:


• The innocent, vulnerable ‘child’ who seldom offended - the dangerous, irresponsible ‘youth’ more likely to offend;

• The child as deprived and in need - the youth as depraved and posing risk;

• The child deserving of care, protection and support (welfare) – the youth requiring control, punishment and reform (justice).


Normal child, problem youth! Our society has perpetually reconciled its various social, political and economic anxieties by projecting them onto a powerless group whose behaviour appears (to adults) to be chaotic and difficult to understand (another recurring theme). The real youth crime ‘problem’ in contemporary youth justice is that we seem to have abolished childhood and detailed consideration of child status for any non-adult who breaks the law. Historically, the age of criminal responsibility has crept incrementally lower and the window of childhood has diminished. Once a child offends, it is as if they immediately become a youth, thus losing their innocence, vulnerability and child status and instantly acquiring the (much over-estimated) maturity, capacity and responsibility of youth (Haines and Case 2015 - https://policypress.co.uk/positive-youth-justice). Conflating the child and youth further exacerbates an already exaggerated crime problem by artificially creating more individuals to target, arrest, convict, sentence and respond to with intervention – classic net-widening, classic self-fulfilling prophecy (yet another recurring theme!). So what can be done about this? I’d like to start by identifying the main offender in this whole damaging process as a means of justifying my proposed solution.


The irony of risk management: The biggest risk to young people in the YJS

The major changes to the YJS introduced by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 were a manufactured response to an invented and inflated problem. When the Labour government was elected in 1997, they targeted youth offending because it was supposedly a new problem (it was neither new nor a problem), it was increasing (it wasn’t) and previous youth justice responses hadn’t worked (they had, but effective approaches like diversion had been abandoned as ‘too soft’ by hard-line Tories). And so the problem was framed – the YJS was costly and failing, indicating that society was costly and failing; children, families and communities likewise A new approach was needed. Unfortunately for vulnerable children and skilled practitioners, this new approach was pragmatic, centralised and managerialist (heavily-managed) approach (also reflected in Scotland at that time) rather than welfare-focused, justice-based, child friendly or discretionary. It was, in Barry Golson’s words, a ‘new youth justice’. In order to make the YJS more ‘effective, efficient and economical’, the government prescribed a prevention agenda - no more welfare or justice as priorities. The technical vehicle to pursue this agenda was risk management – assessing and responding to the (predicted, not actualised) risk that children who offend or are assessed as being ‘at risk’ of offending, supposedly present to themselves and others – their risk of offending, reoffending, reconviction or serious harm. Youth and risk became synonymous (Case and Haines 2009 - https://www.routledge.com/Understanding-Youth-Offending-Risk-Factor-Reserach-Policy-and-Practice/Case-Haines/p/book/9781843923411). Risk became synonymous with danger, threat and irresponsibility. Risk and youth needed to be managed. Two harmful issues emerge:


1) Prediction: Understanding and responding to offending through prevention of predicted risk perpetuates a controlling agenda that criminalises, labels and stigmatises children in the YJS, not to mention ‘responding’ to what they might do in the future, not what they have done. Ethics, rights and due process anyone?


2) Prescription: Risk management prioritises preventing negative outcomes through prescribed, technical methods, not promoting the positive through supportive and participatory approaches. Practitioner discretion and engaging children anyone?

Nevertheless, the government nailed its colours to the risk management mast and nothing else would do. Every element of practice was to be obsessively performance managed in pursuit of risk prevention – measured, quantified, inspected, directed and standardised. Soon came ‘National Standards’, ‘Key Performance Indicators’, ‘Key Elements of Effective Practice’ and reams of additional practice guidance, all underpinned by a risk-based, technical, prescriptive model of assessment and intervention. Naturally, this practice guidance is ‘evidence-based’ and proven ‘effective practice’ in the eyes of government. But this is a specious argument because the ‘evidence’ comes from an endless stream of self-fulfilling, repetitive risk factor research studies and experimental, risk-based ‘what works interventions – all cohering to form the ‘Risk Factor Prevention Paradigm’ (assess risk, target it through intervention, solve crime). This paradigm is only one narrow strand of evidence; on the one hand practical, commonsense and replicable (i.e. politically appealing), on the other hand incestuous, pseudo-psychological, Americanised, over-simplified and dehumanising. Privileging this model to the relative exclusion of alternatives (e.g. actually talking to children about their experiences and understandings) hamstrings highly experienced and capable practitioners, pigeon holes their understandings, restricts their responses and invalidates their formal understandings of the real lives of the children they work with and are expected to support. There’s a whole other book in that (Case and Haines 2009 - https://www.routledge.com/Understanding-Youth-Offending-Risk-Factor-Reserach-Policy-and-Practice/Case-Haines/p/book/9781843923411).


However, post-2010 youth justice has also witnessed a re-emergence of positive (arguably principled) practices nationally, thanks largely to a new (coalition) government keen on new approaches (recurring theme alert). We have welcomed back an emphasis on pre-court diversion and its inevitable (yet similarly welcome) positive effects on diminishing numbers of first-time entrants (FTEs) into the YJS and those receiving custodial sentences – reflecting established trajectories from 2008 onwards. Indeed, FTE and custody rates in England and Wales are at their lowest levels since YOTs began in 2000. Whether this progressive evolution has resulted from economic and practical necessities (likely) or considered, principled reflection (less likely) is moot, but it is a welcome reality.


The pursuit of a newer ‘new youth justice’?

Yet the identity crisis of the YJS remains. Progressive measures and highly encouraging statistics have been downplayed/overlooked by an even newer version of the new (2015) Conservative government (now with Theresa May as Prime Minister and Liz Truss as Justice Secretary) keen to make their mark by ‘doing something’ about youth offending (recurring theme). We have further ruthless economic cuts to the budgets of the Youth Justice Board and YOTs, who are now expected to achieve the same impressive results with less (victims of their own success?). These same (ostensibly successful) stakeholders have been subjected to a review by proxy; the Charlie Taylor review of the (ostensibly successful) YJS to find ‘new’ ways of dealing with the (invented and inflated) youth crime ‘problem’. Thus, we have the paradox of reviewing an apparently successful system to identify more effective ways of working. A cynic may view this review as motivated more at least four political, not principled, rationale:



1) wilful government misinterpretation of reoffending statistics (diminishing in number but not percentage);


2) the need to justify further financial cuts;


3) government desire to increasingly subsume the Youth Justice Board into their full control (within the Ministry of Justice);


4) the standard new government push to put their own spin on youth justice practice and to claim credit for any continued successes.


The result, however, is another directionless government perpetuating a directionless YJS – with children and practitioners left to fend for themselves with constantly changing guidance and diminishing resources.


Principled practice by stealth?

So where does that leave us? Political, administrative, media and economic expedience and self-serving agendas in the 21st century have superseded the need to fully consider the child and the realities of their life, wherein offending is just one part of a broader complex. Less ‘children first’ and more children nowhere. The most troubling aspect of this situation is the absence of explicit, consistent principles from contemporary youth justice practice in this modern obsession to manage, measure and control. Where have these practice principles gone – have they been rejected, lost, forgotten, underestimated, deliberately marginalised? We are left with a YJS that has lost its identity, values, purpose, empathy and connection with its key stakeholders – children, practitioners (from youth offending teams/YOTs) and policy makers (from local authorities, from the resourceful and expert Youth Justice Board expected to guide and manage the YJS). Crucially, however, these key stakeholders haven’t lost their values or their connection with one another. Principled, progressive, positive youth justice practice is visible locally across England and Wales, often as a bolt-on to or mediated version of governmental practice requirements or as innovative under the radar wheeler dealing where practice is untested.


The fact that there is a wealth of positive practice that sustains and expands across the United Kingdom (e.g. diversion, restorative justice, YOT-police and YOT-university partnerships, participatory mechanisms) is testament to the expertise and values of key stakeholders and their overriding desire for positive outcomes for children who offend. Therefore, all is not lost in our ambition for a positive youth justice. The groundwork has been done and the appetite is there, as is the personnel and (some of the) processes. The government wants a new direction, the YJS needs a new direction. This new direction needs to be ‘evidence-based’, but the government has privileged the collection of risk-based evidence to the relative exclusion of evidencing alternatives, certainly until the recent inception of AssetPlus, which marks a significant government retreat from their traditional risk obsession, but not from excessive managerialism (Haines and Case 2015 - https://policypress.co.uk/positive-youth-justice). We appear to have a Catch 22, until we remember the innovative and motivated key stakeholders across the YJS who pursue progressive youth justice practice on a daily basis. Enter Positive Youth Justice: Children First, Offenders Second.


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