‘Youth is disagreeable time, for it is neither possible then nor prudent to be productive in any sense whatsoever’
In the youth justice system, we are frequently faced with the issue of using formal court procedures with young people. There are advocates for and against with a deluge of academic, practical and experimental on why their particular view is correct. This can be quite overwhelming for the practitioner and therefore a balanced view of the benefits and disadvantages are required. This article sets out to weigh the benefits against the disadvantages and develop a deeper understanding into which are the best such procedures for young people.
Firstly, one must comprehend what are the advantages or benefits of using a system designed for adults amongst the youth population. Back in 2005, Robert Marsh stated that in the USA in youth courts it must be remembered that ‘the arrangements vary among courts, but consistent in all youth courts and essential to their success is that the youths deliberate the charges and impose the sanctions’. In England and Wales, a similar system is in place as shown by the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales in the film ‘the Panel Meeting’. Within this video, the practitioners, volunteers, victim, youth offender and family are shown to be working together to decide on an appropriate intervention, develop this into a contract and as long as everyone agrees have the youth offender agree and sign the contract committing to the intervention. However this, of course, is a ‘best case scenario’ where the young offender pleading guilty or at least partly admitting the offence and the victim is willing or able to meet the offender. Things can get a lot more complex in more heinous crimes such as the murder of two-year-old James Bulger who in 1993 was violently attacked with bricks, stones, and a piece of metal by two 10-year-old boys who abducted him. In this case, the two young perpetrators had little input to their ‘intervention’ as they were tried as adults and sentenced to be detained at “Her Majesty’s pleasure”, the juvenile equivalent of life imprisonment in the UK. This can be deduced to have been influenced by the public’s reaction and societal outlook on such a case where many people campaigned for two ten-year-old boys to be kept in prison for the rest of their foreseeable lives. If you compare this to an extremely similar case in Norway where the public did not perceive the perpetrators as evil, and they were never branded as criminals; you can deduct an explanation to why such interventions were given, and court case proceedings were quite different.
It is quite clear that there are both benefits and disadvantages to formal court procedures with young people. Despite the case of Thompson and Venables in 1993 most young offenders who attend a formal court procedure do it through a youth court. The British Parliament describes a youth court as a special type of magistrates court for people aged between 10 and 17. Wendy Povitsky states that youth courts work with a basis of restorative justice which can provide an atmosphere where youthful offenders can become reintegrated in their communities and their victims can return to their daily lives without fear and uneasiness. Which of course is of great benefit to the young person when it works. Furthermore, it is of benefit for more people as it can repair the damage between the three stakeholders: the offender, the victim, and the community.
Another benefit of youth court is the role the youth offending team’s (YOT’s) can play for that young person. According to the British Government YOT’s work with young people that get into trouble with the law. A court proceeding will give the YOT a chance to advocate for the young person with the legal authorities, as such reducing the chance of a custodial sentence and improving the chances of a restorative justice intervention. According to Nacro, a charity working in youth justice, the court’s perception of what a YOT does and of the quality of its service derives, in the main, from its experience of how its staff operate in court when advocating on behalf of young people, assisting with enquiries and presenting court reports. This is not just the case for the final punishment/intervention, but also the case of a young offender’s bail as well. Nacro states that courts need to have a clear and thorough understanding of the bail and remand framework, and YOTs should provide comprehensive bail information to encourage sentencers to make use of the most appropriate option in a given case. So, having official court proceedings allows YOT’s to advocate for young people’s bail conditions as well, which in turn can lead to a more restorative and therefore more beneficial intervention. A young person’s response to a bail programme can give an important indication of how that young person may respond to a community sentence.
So advantages of official court proceedings for young people include:
- Restorative Justice
- Youth Advocating
However, such disadvantages of formal court procedures can include the shaming and labelling that come with such cases as well as the intimidating effect it can have on young people. As Wendy Povitsky reminds us that if the offender was stigmatized, he or she would turn to criminal subcultures for support. Wendy researched further methods such as diversion techniques. Diversion techniques take young offenders out of the traditional juvenile justice system and attempt to use other methods of dealing with their indiscretions. These diversion approaches can be a great alternative to official court procedures as the goal of this process is to change the path of the juvenile from a life of delinquency to something more conventional. In Northern Ireland, the police created a diversion program that took about 90% of juvenile cases out of the courts. The young people were issued with a ‘warning’ rather than specific interventions, after two years, about 85% of those who completed the program had not reoffended. According to John Heslop who was detective sergeant of New South Wales police department at the time, juvenile diversion systems are necessary as an alternative to the very costly, overcrowded, and too often ineffective juvenile justice system.
One of the benefits of official court proceedings was the advocacy that YOT’s could offer and do for young offenders reducing the likelihood of custodial sentences and increasing the chance of a restorative judgement. However, if the YOT is inefficient or ineffective this can actually increase the young offenders’ chances of a custodial sentence which in turn is less beneficial for them and the community. Nacro’s research found that in such instances a lack of clarity may lead courts to err on the side of caution and consider custody and that YOTs may effectively be passively advocating custody.
One problem for young people is the lack of control they have in these proceedings. Within adult courts, adults speak for themselves and work with their legal team. However, even though there are similarities within youth courts, a lot of adults are delegated to advocate or represent the young people for them and this can have a major effect on the intervention. The authorities have to believe these delegated adults (YOT’s) are effective practitioners, as independent working relationships, along with high levels of confidence, is the most effective way of ensuring appropriate outcomes for young people. Another issue that arises is the lack of understanding young people may have during the court proceedings. Statistics show that a lot of young offenders are poorly educated and have low literacy levels. Katherine Sellgren noted that most 15 to 17-year-olds in custody have been excluded from school and half of those have the literacy skills expected of a seven to 11-year-old. This means that it can be extremely hard for young people to follow the legal jargon and process, therefore not fully understanding what is happening or what they are agreeing too. A YOT needs to be fully aware of the young person’s understanding, who they are, how they may react and what is possible for them. Nacro is clear that YOT’s also need to give serious consideration to the proposals they put before the court to ensure that the demands contained within the proposals are of a nature the young person can understand — breach can be a significant driver of custodial levels. Any mistakes in this part will be detrimental to the young person and not beneficial for society.
So disadvantages of official court proceedings include:
- Shaming and labelling
- Increased chance of custodial sentence/intervention
- Promotion of reoffending
In the bigger picture, a lot of this depends on the young person, their age, and educational ability, mental and physical health. One could argue that youth courts show a young offender they are in the wrong and promotes understanding of consequences for actions. However one could also argue that they are too young to develop this understanding and it just facilitates anger, hatred and contempt. As most western European countries have an age of criminal responsibility of 14–16, England and Wales are quite strange with the limit at 10. One would argue that when looking at the facts official court proceedings can only be beneficial for a few cases with the older young offenders. Remember, if you told a Finnish person there was a ten-year-old on trial, they would look at you baffled and, in the end, Finland’s system works better than the one in England and Wales.