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169 J.P.N. 1 (2005)

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YOUTH INJUSTICE


We  all, I hope, agree that the way in
which  we  deal with juvenile delin-
quency  is vitally important. The suc-
cessful rehabilitation and reintegration
into normal society of youngsters who
have  got involved in wrongdoing  (I
avoid using the word offending delib-
erately) should, therefore, be a major
social and Government   goal  which
we  should spare no reasonable effort
or expense to achieve. In my opinion,
however, all too often the action we
take is counter-productive. Last year, I
wrote a number of editorials that were
critical of the youth justice system
(see (2004) 168 JPN 243, 301 and 325).
The crux of my complaint was that to
deal with young offenders in a man-
ner that was based on much the same
principles, procedures and standards
that apply in the adult criminal jurisdic-
tion was fundamentally wrong. It leads
to delay and expense, when timely wel-
fare intervention is often crucial, and
it wrongly equates youthful misbehav-
iour with adult crime. This was to some
extent recognized by the authors of the
welfare-oriented Children and Young
Persons Act 1969, but successive gov-
ernments  in subsequent  years have
resiled from this approach in favour of
a model that, with the partial exception
of the referral order, relies mainly on
prosecution and sentencing. Yet every
day we see examples of how this fails.
Here is a typical one.
   In March  2004, John, on his 14th
birthday, allegedly went with a large
group of young  people aged between
eight and  16  approximately,  to a
small local nature reserve. John's elder
brother, who  was  the leader of the
group, committed an act of cruelty on
a cat. This was witnessed by one of the
main trustees of the site. He decided to
intervene. The group initially dispersed,
but John  and his elder brother then
confronted the trustee. John's brother
initially acted in a threatening way to
the trustee, but he then backed down.
John, however, allegedly fired some pel-
lets from a BB gun, hitting the back of
the trustee's neck. John's brother apolo-
gized for this, and there was no further


threatening behaviour. The  trustee,
however, reported the incident to the
police. Their investigation led them to
a 15-year-old girl, who had been in the
group and was the former girlfriend of
the brother. She identified John and his
brother as the culprits.
   A  few  weeks   later, the police
arrested John by prior arrangement.
He  was  interviewed in the presence
of his stepfather and a solicitor. He
presented  an  alibi defence, which
his stepfather confirmed. Although
the police had  the girl's statement
regarding identification they decided
to invite the trustee to attend a video
identification parade. For logistical
reasons this did not take place until
about three months from the incident.
After a lengthy pause the trustee iden-
tified John. John denied the offence,
but the trial did not take place until
December. It was necessary to obtain a
witness summons  to compel the girl to
attend. She was extremely, and under-
standably, unhappy  about testifying.
John  called various family members
to support his alibi and claimed that
the girl must be grinding an axe. The
court acquitted John, a verdict that
meant  that the court found it was at
least possible that the trustee's identi-
fication was wrong and the girl (who
must have been there) was lying when
naming  John  and his brother as the
culprits. This might be thought to be a
surprising coincidence of possibilities,
but whichever way  the trial had gone
there would have been a failure of jus-
tice. As it was, the trustee was disil-
lusioned, the girl suffered an ordeal
that will make her even less likely to
co-operate with the authorities in the
future, John learned a lesson that will
hold him in good stead if he offends
in the future, and thousands of pounds
of public money was spent at no ben-
efit at all to the actors involved or
society. The justice approach was
a disaster all round. Anything  else
would  have been better, but until we
learn a new approach to alleged juve-
nile delinquency cases like this arise
time and time again.           AJT


Volume 169  JUSTICE  Ofthe PEACE


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