chapter  10
7 Pages

Youth justice: Children in trouble or children in need?


The possible conflict between the justice and welfare aims of practice is not only symbolized in the title of this chapter but can actually be found carved in the portals of London’s Old Bailey: ‘Punish the Wrongdoer and Defend the Children of the Poor’. However, as Pitts (1988) has pointed out many times, the wrongdoer and the child of the poor are sometimes the same person. Social workers are expected to weigh and balance the potential for competing needs and rights between individuals, their families and the wider community.

It is, therefore, vital that YJSWs develop a coherent approach to professional values about young people who offend, and are able to both acknowledge the effects upon their families and their victims whilst enhancing interventions that can meet their needs as developing young people. This balance between ‘welfare and justice imperatives’ (Hendrick 2006) can be traced back to the beginning of the twentieth century with the introduction of children’s legislation and the establishment of juvenile courts, through the Children Act 1908. A combination of trying to meet the needs of ill-treated children through relationships and activities while simultaneously applying criminal sanctions to offending behaviours can be found, in varying mixtures, in subsequent legislation. The Children and Young Person’s Act of 1933 (Section 44) specified the duty of magistrates to consider the welfare of the child when passing sentence and, as Hendrick (2003) argues, brought together neglected children, young offenders and young victims in a common purpose, where the primary aim was intended to be reformative rather than punitive. This emphasis upon welfare became more pronounced in the Children and Young Person’s Act of 1969 with provisions for social work interventions and care proceedings to address ‘delinquent behaviour’. The balance of responsibility in this legislation between an individual young person and their social environment became tilted much more in favour of the latter. However, many of the Sections of the 1969 Act failed to be implemented, for example, the raising of the age of criminal responsibility to 14, due to a change in government just months after Royal Assent was granted, a development which in effect lessened the swing to welfarism. Indeed, some of the measures that were implemented in the 1969 Act had an opposite effect to improving the welfare of children; for example, the introduction of the Section 7(7) Care Order which gave courts powers to make care orders on the grounds of the commission of a criminal offence, and resulted in an increase in the incarceration of children (Thorpe 1980). Later, and linked to the public’s reaction to the death of James Bulger in 1993 and the subsequent struggle for power preceding the 1997 General Election, the pendulum swung once again, this time towards an altogether more punitive mood. Youth justice, therefore, occupies a tricky position at the boundary of the welfare and justice systems, and the requirements of both need to be satisfied in order to deliver effective practice. The 1998 Crime and Disorder Act (Section 37) defined the purpose of the youth justice system simply as ‘to prevent offending by children and young persons’. Whereas the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 is more specific, in stating that for the purpose of sentencing, the court must have regard to: (a) the principal aim of the youth justice system (which is to prevent offending or re-offending); (b) the welfare of the offender; and (c) the purposes of sentencing (defined as essentially punishment, reform and rehabilitation, the protection of the public and reparation). Thus, the practice of all those working in the system should be driven by, or if not driven at least related in some way to these objectives. In other words, if the welfare of the child became somehow