Workable Youth Justice: Time for a fresh debate?

The following is not Party policy but a document designed to encourage debate and responses from members and the general public.

Current Liberal Party policy calls for an end to imprisonment of offenders under the age of 18. Such a policy was plainly devised from the best of motives, but is it too simplistic an approach to a complex social problem?

Youth crime is a difficult problem, and a nettle no one seems willing to grasp at the present time. In previous years the Tories have tried the short sharp shock of custody, and the Labour Party have attempted to ASBO troublesome youths into line. The former has manifestly failed, the latter has enjoyed some success in its initial implementation in breaking up gangs and dealing with low level anti-social behaviour, but did little to address the wider range of offending behaviour and ultimately came to be seen as a ‘badge of honour’ rather than a restriction on liberty.

We have to address a number of issues and find workable, realistic and practical solutions, bearing in mind our commitment to ‘set freedom first’.

Do we really want to rule out imprisonment in all cases, for example cases involving the most serious crimes – murder, manslaughter and rape for example? There may be individual cases where even here imprisonment is not appropriate, but can we say it is never appropriate?

We must also consider circumstances where all else has failed: where young offenders simply do not comply with any other punishment regime, or where repeated ‘community-based’ punishments appear to have had no rehabilitative effect. Cases where, in short, society needs protection from recidivists for whom all else has failed, and the criminals themselves need a more intensive rehabilitative programme. We should be clear that no one will be abandoned to incarceration because it is an easy option, and that rehabilitation will always be a feature of any custodial sentence.

We can all agree that custody should not be the preferred option, and probably that custody should be the last option, but there is a compelling argument that it should be an option.

It is proposed that custody remains an option in all offences categorised as ‘grave crimes’* and for serious or repeated breaches of community based punishment orders.

We also need to examine the whole system of youth justice and sentencing. There need to be real and effective punishments short of custody. All too often young offenders see community penalties as an easy option and end up in custody when the Court find that all else available has failed.

We would propose a proper system of restorative justice, properly supervised and enforced. Such a system should be based in the community where the offences where committed and combined with other penalties where appropriate and necessary.

Such a system should include meeting and assisting the victims of crime (including the specific victim of the offender’s crime) in appropriately supervised conditions where practical and beneficial to both offender and aggrieved party (and where the aggrieved party agrees).

Low level offences such as criminal damage (particularly vandalism type offences) suggest their own penalty. We would, however, need to ensure that any restorative programmes are not simply dead end ‘busy work’ such as litter picking or dredging the canal, but are rather engaging and truly restorative.

Such programmes would bring with them the discipline of regular working hours and the practice of working to complete a task under direction and supervision. Such basic attributes are often lacking in youths who have little or no family history of employment and  themselves may have been poor attenders (and/or disruptive attenders) at school.

Any restorative justice system should aim to increase the skill base of those on it, with the goal of making them more employable as well as fostering a sense of pride in what the offender can actually achieve.

This may need greater effort and expense to put in place and enforce such programmes in cases of more serious crimes and when dealing with repeat offenders, and should consists of input from all stakeholders: victims, police, probation and in certain circumstances (particularly when dealing with anti-social behaviour type offences) local councillors.

Such programmes should help offenders become, and feel like they are, important members of their community.

The above is intended to stimulate debate, and hopefully lead to a comprehensive review of our policies in this area, with new policy proposals, at this year’s assembly.

We would be very interested to hear your views at

*’Grave crimes’ is a well defined phrase referring to offences which carry as a maximum sentence a period of 14 years or more and such a category includes  burglary of domestic premises, kidnapping, false imprisonment, wounding/causing grievous bodily harm with intent and supply of (and possession with intent to supply) class A, B and C drugs.

Steve Radford
Daniel Wood