Crime & Punishment 2

Cause & Effect...

Offender by wall - Linda Yolanda - iStock_000007765018XSmall

The theme of my last post on youth crime was Punishment isn’t enough…. We explored why it is that people often cry out for more punishment.

It was a call for us all to remember what it was like being young. Most of all, it was a reminder that judgment kills trust. If kids don’t trust us, we can’t help them.

If not more punishment, then what?

The current system is pretty good at punishing young offenders. Though its decisions throw up all kinds of debate.

I’ve spent years of my working life visiting (as a volunteer!) and working in custodial settings and in community-based services for young people who offend. I know how our criminal justice system punishes children.

So if more punishment alone isn’t the answer, what is?

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First we need to know a bit more about the young people who end up in our:

  • Courts
  • Youth offending services
  • Secure children’s homes
  • Young offender institutions…

 What we know about persistent young offenders…

  • They are young – sorry, (no charge for that one!) but it’s worth pointing out. I suspect that those whose bile rises the most about crime are not so young. It’s easy to forget what it’s like. One thing is for sure – it’s not now like it was when “we were young.” We struggle to relate.
  • Most of them got off to a really bad start – for example:
    • 79% of the most prolific young offenders have been or are still involved with social services               
    • 42% had suffered significant bereavement or loss
    • 5% had run away from home
    • 41% had been on the child protection register
    • 40% grew up in areas with signs of obvious drug use/dealing
    • 48% had witnessed violence at home
    • 55% were known to have been abused – many more were suspected victims of abuse
    • 57% had had contact with mental health services
    • Over a third can’t read, write or add up properly

(Wales figures 2012:17-18)

We could go on, but you get the point. In short, these young people got off to a bad start in life. A really bad start.

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Look back over the list again – how many of the issues apply to you? Not many? Me too. In my experience, most persistent young offenders would tick over half of the list. Many would tick them all.

  • They never established good attachments. One might even say that they weren’t properly taught how to be a person at all. They’ve had to muddle through, learning on the job. Click here for more info and resources on attachment.
  • They are caught in a vicious circle – They know they’ve blown it, but don’t know what to do next. Knowing that things have gone wrong is the easy bit. Knowing what to do about it is more tricky. Someone needs to give them a steer, to show them the way out.
  • They are scared – this has a paralysing effect. It traps young people in modes of behaving that are defensive. They default to what they’ve learned – how to survive. I always find it both strange and reassuring when young people express reluctance to leave the custodial setting. But if you’re scared and not sure how to survive in the world, custody feels safe. This happens often.
  • They are teenagers! – Add to all this the usual daily challenges and pressures of being a teenager growing up and we shouldn’t be surprised that things go wrong. Sometimes very badly wrong! It’s an impulsive, risk-taking and uncertain time of life. It was the case for us with safe and caring families. How much more so for those growing up against the odds?

Final thought…

Remembering that young people who offend are, first and foremost, children is the best antidote to judgmentalism. Remember that they’ve been fighting against the odds for most of their lives and your motivation to help will rise.

You see, if we “water” a young plant with battery acid, keep in the cupboard and never talk to it, you can be sure that it probably won’t live long and will never achieve its potential.

Poison a young child’s mind with criticism, abuse, violence and neglect, and you consign them to an adolescence fraught with feelings of fear, isolation and despair. So why would they care about stealing a car, burgling a house or robbing someone violently on the street?…

Stuck with what to do with a troubled child or young person? Help is at hand – click here…

What do you think?…

These are just my initial thoughts. They certainly aren’t definitive!

Please let me know what your thoughts are – why you think people feel so strongly about punishing young people who offend. Leave a comment below or click here.

Related previous posts…

Pass it on…

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© Jonny Matthew 2013

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  • Averil Pierce

    I think that we are conditioned to think crime equals punishment, from our own upbringing. We were punished when we broke the rules. I also know that punishment is based on fear, (of the punishment), and that doesn’t change behaviour when there is nothing left to lose, or when the punishment might actually satisfy a need unmet need.
    I think people demand criminals be punished, partly because that is our conditioning, and partly from our own fear, that “it might happen to me if this person isn’t punished” which in itself is a false idea, because punishment doesn’t actually change behaviour, but rehabilitation might.

    • jonnymatthew

      I’m with that all the way, Averil – the only way forward is investment in proper rehabilitation. Thanks for commenting!

      • Lillian

        Thank you for posting this message about youth offenders. Many children are raised in loving homes, some aren’t, many children do not know how to cope with peer pressure so they follow others instead of lead because it seems to be the norm. Society has a way of damaging a childs mind due to crime in their community, as well as the media reports. Besides rehabilitation services, I also believe there need to be more issues on restorative justice. We all have room for improvement an children are our future.

        • jonnymatthew

          You’re very welcome, Lillian. Thanks for the encouragement! As you say, there are lots of reason for young people getting drawn into crime, but they are mostly developmental in my view – either as part of maturation or of poor developmental experiences. I agree that restorative approaches have a lot to offer. They are redemptive in their ethical base, which is far more likely to result in successful diversion than is punishment… Thanks again, Lillian! Cheers, J.

  • Lisa Bell

    I’m not sure if i last post ‘worked’ so i’ll try again. I think its difficult for a community to get supportive of other options of punishment of youthful offenders for several reason, including personal interactions with the youth (typically negative) and a sense of outrage when a youth is arrested for a serious crime after having been in treatment. When a community doesn’t see any short-term change, they are not really going to get on board for long-term change when they believe they are being targets of crime.

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