Thinking Differently in Youth Justice: changing and challenging the youth justice system

Roxanna is a Lecturer at Leicester Law School, University of Leicester and has recently defended her PhD thesis. Roxanna’s research, funded by the University of Leicester, examines the implementation of the appropriate adult safeguard in police custody for vulnerable adult suspects. Roxanna’s research has involved qualitative research methods (non-participant observation in custody and semi-structured interviews with custody officers). As the appropriate adult safeguard is also required for young people, Roxanna has also developed a keen interest in youth justice. She has written a paper on the vulnerability of children and young people in police custody to be published in the Journal of Social Welfare and Family Law in November 2017.


The following blog post gives a brief overview of some of the themes arising from the ‘Thinking Differently in Youth Justice’ conference held at the University of Leicester on 25 April 2017. Roxanna was responsible for organising the conference, alongside Sarah Brooks-Wilson. If you would like to contact Roxanna, you can email her roxanna.dehaghani@le.ac.uk or tweet her @roxanna_law.

http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/law/people/roxanna-fatemi-dehaghani 

The ‘Thinking Differently’ series was established so as to create a space for postgraduates to challenging taken-for-granted thinking in criminology and criminal justice. This second event – on the area of youth justice – brought together practitioners, established academics, and PhD candidates at various stages of their studies. The day began with a talk by Prof Hannah Smithson (who has been labeled a ‘pracademic’) who spoke about ‘Knowledge Transfer and Youth Justice’. In her talk, Hannah highlighted that many young people are neglected in discussions surrounding youth justice. She urged that inclusion, whilst vital, must ensure representativeness: central in this should be the voice of young people (and not just one, but many). The youth-centred focus must exist, not simply in policy and practice circles, but too in academic fora. The youth-focused approach continued through Anne-Marie Day’s talk, which teased-out the various concerns of looked-after children (as part of her PhD, Anne-Marie interviewed looked-after children). These concerns included not being heard, and being labelled, dehumanized, bullied, and separated from their birth families. Anne-Marie also raised the issue of the ‘paper self’: young people felt that what was written in their risk assessment took over their identity and they became the ‘bad’ child or the ‘mad’ child. Both of these talks drew attention to how important the child’s voice is within the youth justice arean.

Dr Kate Gooch and Piers von Berg then examined some legal aspects pertaining to the detention of young suspects in police custody. Highlighting that the police custody suite is the ‘gateway’ to the criminal process and that it is ‘out of sight, out of mind’, Kate and Piers urged that we reconsider how young suspects are treated within police custody. In particular, they drew attention to the lack of a complete policy agenda and the absence of national guidance on how to interview a child. Within this context, they urged for the maxim ‘Child First, Suspect Second’, although they recognized that currently the opposite is very much true. The ‘child first’ approach seems to be more closely adhered to in Scotland, as explored in Fern Gillon’s talk on Early and Effective Investigation (EEI). The Scottish approach may, particularly for a criminologist hailing from England, Wales or Northern Ireland, seem wonderful. Yet, as Fern highlighted, it was far from perfect: although there were claims that the system was free from power relations, the reality is such that the police act as gatekeepers and it is they who decide which cases go through to EEI. The main question raised by Fern was whether the Scottish system of EEI is effective and working or whether it is simply better than the alternative.

Power relations and the silencing of young people are not the only problems within the youth justice landscape: as the panel (comprised of Jayne Louise Price, Shantey Francis and Sarah Brooks-Wilson) highlighted, other problems exist such as: what happens to those transitioning from the youth to the adult justice system? What type of environment is required for children and young people to flourish? Are children and young people being adequately supported? Do they face social exclusion and a lack of mobility? And how does this exclusion and lack of mobility impact upon their treatment within the justice system? Prof Jo Phoenix’s highlighted some further worrying trends in her talk on the death of youth justice: not only have YOTs staff declined sharply, the decline has been more deeply felt for sessional and casual staff and volunteers, i.e. those who spend more time with young people. Jo urged the audience to consider whether falling numbers of children and young people entering the system really equated to a more just system and highlighted the unachievable goal of ‘justice’ in a society marked by social inequality. Her talk also served as a call for youth justice researchers to start thinking more radically and to see past the current systems of youth governance and youth justice.

In all, the day contained two pertinent lessons. The first was that we need to consider the voice of the child and the second was that we need to think of new ways of providing justice for children and young people. The day also highlighted the massive appetite amongst youth justice researchers for future networking, discussion, and collaboration. With this in mind we are thinking of ways to facilitate this through the British Society of Criminology and/or the BSC Postgraduate Committee. Watch this space!

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