The Youth Justice Board (YJB), under recent threat of abolition, was saved like the NHS and the benefits system before it, by the politically appointed of the Lords and the self-appointed of the commentariat. But, putting that to one side, the threat has brought to the surface an ongoing conflict in youth offending circles: should they be concerned most with criminal justice or with the ‘rights’ and welfare of children?
Rod Morgan, a former chairman of the YJB, has expressed his hopes that the reprieve will embolden it in its ‘progressive’ mission. But what does this mean? Particularly now, after the riots. Is it true that the fundamental problem facing society today is a lack of concern for the ‘rights’ of children and a neglect of their welfare? We are surrounded by such concerns. And yet, while critics are right to condemn the knee-jerk incarceration of young rioters – apparently increasing the already shockingly high number of children in detention by 8% – this has less to do with hostility to children’s welfare than with an absence of adult authority.
Regardless of whether or not we are in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – the legitimacy of which should be in question – what is of greater concern is the lashing out by a society, and its institutions, as they lose their grip on the morals and the behaviour of the young. Mark Johnson, a ‘rehabilitated offender and former drug user’ now heading up the charity User Voice, argues ‘there is no other way to access the lives and minds of the marginalised than by utilising the skills of those who have been there too’. Similarly, an advocate of ex-offenders going into schools says: ‘The corridors are intellectually bankrupt on this issue but the cells have more than enough wisdom to confront it’.
While I’m no fan of the punitive and regard myself as a progressive, is it really the case that the youth justice system and society at large have so lost faith in their ability to hold the line, that only ex-cons have any authority over young people these days? What’s progressive about that?