New research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council calls into question previous assumptions that youth justice practice is evidence based and that young people's views are taken into account. The research, which looks at how practitioners in the field of youth justice make their judgements, finds that magistrates often believe that they know best, disregarding the advice of Youth Offending Teams and other professionals.
Dr Jo Phoenix of the University of Bath, believes the results will have significant implications for youth justice policy and practice
"The findings of this research suggest that decisions and recommendations are based on little more than stereotypes and that the engagement of young people is not necessarily in their best interests."
The research was based on 80 interviews with young lawbreakers and youth justice practitioners, including Youth Offending Team workers, lay magistrates, police and solicitors and included a six-month period of youth court observation. The aim was to analyse the ways youth justice practitioners acquire knowledge about young people, how they use that knowledge when assessing risk or need, how they pass it on and how far young people themselves are involved in and understand the process.
The main tendency uncovered by the research is for professionals to rely on their own observations and interactions with the young people as a primary source of information. Magistrates, for example, tended to view information from youth teams as biased (because they seldom recommend custody). Most said they did not find the risk-assessment in the pre-sentence report helpful and that prior criminal histories, family background and their own observations were the 'best' predictor of future offending.
In their assessments of the explanation of the young person's offending, the professionals placed the responsibility of lawbreaking firmly with the young person or their family. Notwithstanding this, all practitioner groups talked about the material and social difficulties experienced by young lawbreakers, such as deprivation and poverty, but these narratives did not form a dominant part of the explanations for young people's offending.
As far as the young people themselves were concerned, while they offered their own explanations, these were often not conveyed to police or magistrates. Their stories about the lack of appropriate help for family conflict, abuse, alcoholism or drug problems and lack of opportunity, were either excluded, not recognised or more often translated into stories that made sense to each of the practitioner groups. Also, many of the young people commented that being too truthful with the court or the Youth Offending Teams placed them in jeopardy of bad reports or harsher sentences. They sensed that the professionals did not want to hear 'their truth' and that speaking 'their truth' would get them into further trouble.
The research findings will be presented by Dr Phoenix at the National Association of Youth Justice in Shropshire in September this year and at the American Society of Criminologists in Atlanta, Georgia in November.
Notes for Editors
1. The research 'Doing Justice: Analysing 'risk and need' assessments in youth justice practice' was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. It was carried out by Dr. Jo Phoenix of the University of Bath
2. Methodology -This adopted an in-depth case study of a small semi-rural Local Authority in England (Haverset Local Authority). This has one Youth Offending Team and a small youth Court sitting one day per week. Primary data comprised 80 semi-structured interviews with 29 young lawbreakers that were under sentence and 51 practitioners routinely adjudicating or working in youth justice. These included the entire YOT team, the full court bench, a small sample of solicitors and a selection of police officers dealing with young people in the area. Six months of ethnographic observations in the Haverset youth court supplemented the interview data. Also, documentary analysis of 36 YOT case files and official policy documents was undertaken.
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