Years ago, the term ‘youth’ or its category were not part of the U.K.’s society, making it impossible for the existence of ‘youth crime’. There were children with no education who hung around in the streets – noisy, chaotic, troublesome – and adults who were growing with anxiety and concern on how they would control or understand this generation. The government and the media turned this into one of the biggest issues facing society, making Minimum Age for Criminal Responsibility (MACR) to 10 years old a big debate. Social reformers and the middle class still saw them as a vulnerable crowd who were acting as normal children would. To deal with this ambiguity, the category was created; they were not children, but they were not adults yet. They were in the puberty stage facing physical, psychological, emotional, hormonal changes and it was this chaotic period that helped the public understand the behaviour and allowed the government and the police to deal with the “threatening, dangerous, adolescents”.
The YJS only deals with offenders who are under the age of 18, from cautions to custody, as a separate system from the Criminal Justice for adult offenders – it has its own courts, sentences, and secure institutions.
The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 s41 states that “there shall be a body corporate to be known as the Youth Justice Board YJB for England and Wales”, which it would work separately from the Crown. Its main objective is to monitor the operation of youth justice system, youth justice services, national standards and to establish “appropriate performance measures”. The YJB also supervises the new multi-body agencies introduced by the 1988 Act, Youth Offending Teams, including the local authority and the police, whose function is to prevent and reduce offending and reoffending.
The YJS in England and Wales ranges from 10 to 17-year-olds. The age of criminal responsibility in the UK was raised to 10 by the Children and Young Persons Act 1963, one of the countries with the lowest ages. Muncie, Hughes and McLaughlin (2004) also suggest that this Act implies the child is not only in need of care but also in need of ‘control’. It is a way of preventing crime at an earlier stage.
The criminal law was the only law that regarded 10 years old capable of responsibility and recognising that their unlawful actions had consequences (Newson, 2018). A child cannot buy cigarettes or alcohol before the age of 18, consent to sex before 16 but can get convicted at the age of 10. Before the CYPA 1963, the doli incapax presumption (incapable of evil) protected children below the age of 14 rather than 10, however it was abolished by s.34 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. The James Bulger case played a heavy role in the abolition of the term, by having two 10-year-old murderers. In turn, the government felt that they needed to show they had a hold on youth crime, so former elected party Labour took a ‘punitive turn’.
Youth crime became a big moral panic issue in the U.K. – youth feel excluded from and unwelcome in the society as a category due to the “policies, coercive security and policing measures”. They perceive these measures as unfair and breed resentment by hanging around commercial areas in groups and behave loudly. Regardless of previous worries about delinquent youth, only in 1815 the representations and inquiries about the issue submerged causing moral panic to produce a response (Muncie, Hughes, McLaughlin, 2004, p88, 160). During the James Bulger case, the media and the government showed the general public that children could be evil and had to be dealt with as early as possible, so when the MACR raised most of society agreed with it. Labour became consistent with Conservative party’s (1979-1990) authoritarianism. They felt that the 1969 Act presented a liberal ‘softness’ and decided to continue with the tough approach Thatcher began – magistracy insisting on secure institutions, police going after prosecutions, and they ‘short, sharp, shock’ presumption for punishing young offenders – hence the name ‘New Labour’. The table below is an example of how authoritarianism works.
Increasing the MACR would mean that a whole new cohort of children aged 10 to 13 would be pulled into the YJS. The Police National Computer (PNC) recorded older First Time Entrants to the YJS in the year ending March 2016 than the previous years. In the preceding decade, the average age of the youth offender increased from 14.6 to 15.2 years, with the biggest proportion (69%) being aged 15 to 17 and 31% 10 to 14. However, these statistics are based on proven offences and “not a measure of the amount of crime committed by young people”.
When the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government (2010), decided to use a different strategy from the previous party (Labour). Their aims were to reduce the number of FTEs, reoffending and the child custodial population, however, the New Labour’s ‘Youth Crime Action Plan’ had already made an impact on the statistics.
The peak period for FTEs was from 2005-2008 and it has actually been decreasing (by 78% by August 2015) ever since the plan was introduced. The final warning scheme was also abolished under the coalition government, and instead, authorities began to respond more informally to minor local offending which in turn affected formal punishment.
In the year ending March 2016, there were 18,300 FTEs of which 12,000 received a caution and 6,300 received mostly community sentences, showing a downfall since March 2006 when out of court disposal was given to 91% of FTEs. Although the number of FTEs has decreased significantly over the last decade, the number of youth convictions increased, reflecting the effectiveness in proving offences.
Yet, none of these statistics specifies what ages in the youth category contributed the most to the FTEs data.
In the Youth Justice System when a 10-17-year-old commits a crime they have 7 possible routes: community resolution, criminal behaviour orders, arrest, caution (including conditional), court, guilty and sentenced (community sentences and custodial sentences).
The data gathered for the following statistics is not the total number of youths the YOTs worked with as they do not work with all young people who receive cautions. They recorded a total of 32,000 young people who received a caution or a court conviction, 64% of them being males aged 15 and over (2015-16). Only 19% were aged males aged 10-14 and 18% were females including 10-year-olds. In comparison with the previous years, it has dropped for both gender and age groups.
Children in custody can be sent to 1 of the 15 Secure Children’s Homes units in England and Wales for vulnerable children from 10 years old and up; Secure Training Centres, for both boys and girls aged 12-17; and Young Offenders Institutions, for boys only, aged 15-17. The YJB invested 70% of their budget into custodial places (Newburn, 2017, p.588), where there can exist high levels of bullying from staff and inmates.
The average population of young people in custody has decreased over the years, with only 960 in the latter statistics. The previous data showed 8% more and 2013/14 had 66% more youths in custody. From 1983 to 1993, the number of young people found guilty in courts dropped by 42% for 10-13 year old and 15% for 14-17.
Newburn (2017), states the Government’s view of the YJS led to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment Act 2012. Seventeen-year-olds were being treated in remand as adults, regardless of United Nations’ instructions that offenders aged 10-17 should be treated the same way, without age or gender discrimination. The government also abolished reprimands and final warnings, as well as youth conditional cautions for 10-17 year old.
New Labour also believed that if there were harsher sentences then there would be fewer crimes committed and offenders (Newburn, 2017, p.785). The 2010 Coalition government published Breaking the Cycle: Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and the Sentencing of Offenders aiming to reverse New Labour’s restriction of the repeated use of out of court disposals. The three main forms of disposals outline by the YJB were youth cautions, youth conditional (reparative, rehabilitative, restrictive and punitive) cautions and community resolutions. Yet, these procedures seemed to be more cost-conscious and less in the interest of the children (Brown, 2014). Custodial sentences are to be given to more serious crimes which cannot be justifiable with fines or community orders.
The majority of immediate custodial sentences (84%) were DTOs in the year ending March 2016, with a total of 1,700 young people sentenced. Community sentences were given to 19,000, including 12,000 Referral Orders and 7,000 YROs. Discharges and other types of sentences like fines and disposals were given to 7,100 under 18s. This was a total of 27,900 young offenders sentences by the end of that year. However, the number of sentenced youths has fallen by 10% from 31,000 in the precedent year and by 71% in the last decade from 96,600. This might be because of Sentencing Council’s guidelines for young people which say that “custodial sentences should always be a last resort for children and young people”.
June 2007 also saw a rise of 43% in sanction detections, which was not a reflection of improved performance as local authorities would have paid attention to behaviour they normally would not (Bateman, 2008). Children (10-14) affected offence rates more than young adults (15-17), with 39% for summary offences and 19% for indictable. Pre-court disposals also saw an increase bigger than prosecutions.
Youth Justice Statistics show that 38,400 under 18s were taken to magistrates court – 27,900 were found guilty, with the greatest proportion being 15-17-year-old males and the common offence being summary non-motoring (28%) with theft (19%) and criminal damage and arson following close behind (11%).
From 1997 to 2007 there was an 87% rise in convictions for youths ages 10-12 and 55% for 13-15 years old while young adults rose by 8% (Bateman, 2008). Despite this, reported incidents are not accurate, most offences did not have a victim therefore not recorded by the CSEW or PRD. Fluctuations in youth crime are almost never a reflection of youth criminality but mostly of changes in legislation or to favour new policies (Muncie, 2015, p.71). From 1983 to 1993 there was a fall of 42% of 10-13-year-old and by 15% of 14-17-year-old founded guilty by courts.
Youth crime children’s characteristics are prenatal and perinatal; impulsive, hyperactive personality, low intelligence and school performance, harsh/erratic or cold/rejecting parents, parental conflict/separation, socio-economic status, delinquent friends, school and community influences. The 2011 Summer riots is a perfect example of this statement and the misunderstanding of the politicians in relation to young people. Mark Duggan was a young man who was shot by the police and after his death, a two-day protest outside the local police station turned into big riots in 6 main cities in the country.
While the Prime Minister perceived this action as “criminality, pure and simple”, not about race but solely about behaviour, describing youths as “children without fathers”, irresponsible and selfish. Meanwhile, Rowan Williams saw “people who have vague but strong longings for something … who on the whole want to belong, and live in a climate where they are taken seriously as workers, as citizens – and as needy individuals; and who have got used to being pushed to the margins and told that they are dispensable”.
Lord Dholakia’s 2015-16 Bill brought to the Government’s attention that although ten and eleven-year-olds could be considered mature enough to differentiate right from wrong, they were not yet mentally capable to “think through the consequences of their actions, empathise with other people’s feelings and control impulsive behaviour” unlike older offenders, including adults. He suggested that offenders aged 10-11 were dealt with through non-criminal procedures as it would be more effective, not leading to reoffences. The Lord also said it was “not right to deal with such young children in a criminal process based on ideas of culpability that assume a capacity for mature, adult-like decision-making”. The 2015-16 Bill would “be an important step towards dealing with vulnerable, difficult and disturbed children in a way that befitted our civilised society”. Unfortunately, it did not go beyond this point because “having the age of criminal responsibility set at ten years allows flexibility to deal with young offenders” (Newson, 2018). The 1969 Act had a similar intent with a familialism strategy (Goldson, Muncie, 2015, p.11), with the abolition of the prosecution of under 14s with the exception of homicide, restricted civil measures, children had to be dealt with outside of court when possible (Newburn, 2017, p.778)
It has been proven that early prevention can help reduce offending by helping with welfare issues like housing, relationships, employment, addiction and anti-social behaviour. By changing our perspective and see it as something more than a problem (a social construction) we will see that the grandiosity of the topic is a normal day to day issue of deprivation and not criminalisation. If lack of knowledge and maturity are recognised and children are dealt with as what they are, crime rates may fall dramatically. Welfare approaches would prove to be more effective than a punitive turn, labelling and stigmatisation.
Legislation.gov.uk. (2018). Crime and Disorder Act 1998. online Available at: https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1998/37/section/41
Newson, N. (2018). Age of Criminal Responsibility Bill HL: Briefing for Lords Stages. online Researchbriefings.parliament.uk. Available at: http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/LLN-2017-0054
Gov.uk. (2018) Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/585897/youth-justice-statistics-2015-2016.pdf
Farrington, D. (2006). Criminal careers and life success: new findings from the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development. online University of Cambridge. Available at: http://www.crim.cam.ac.uk/people/academic_research/david_farrington/hofind281.pdf
Goldson, B. and Muncie, J. (2018). Youth Crime & Justice. 2nd ed. London: SAGE, pp.11, 27, 69, 71.
Harding, J., Davies, P. and Mair, G. (2017). An Introduction to Criminal Justice. 1st ed. London: SAGE, pp.160, 351, 361.
Muncie, J. (2015). Youth & Crime. 4th ed. London: SAGE, pp.11, 27, 69, 71.
Muncie, J., Hughes, G. and McLaughlin, E. (2004). Youth Justice. 2nd ed. London: SAGE, pp.11, 88, 160, 293, 425.
Newburn, T. (2017). Criminology. 3rd ed. Oxon: Routledge, pp.558, 785, 778.