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.

[shareable cite=”Jonny Matthew”]Young offenders know they’ve blown it, but don’t know what to do next – it’s our job to show them…[/shareable]

  • 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…

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© Jonny Matthew 2013