Britain confirmed its tough line on juvenile crime by unveiling controversial plans for a harsh new prison regime for young offenders.
A pilot scheme along the lines of the United States’ “boot camps” is scheduled to begin next summer, putting 18 to 21-year-olds through a 16-hour day of military-style drill, physical exercise and kit inspection.
Penal reform groups have condemned the scheme, saying that there is no evidence that boot camps stop young prisoners returning to crime.
Britain imprisons a higher percentage of its juvenile population than any other country in western Europe. Some 21 per cent of the prison population is under 21, while in the Netherlands it is 15, France 11, and Sweden four per cent.
Chris Stanley of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders said: “Prisons make bad people worse. We need to concentrate on prevention and move away from the traditionally British punitive attitude. Locking up young offenders does not work.” He believes that emphasis should be placed on youth action groups and leisure activities.
The trend in many European countries towards introducing reform by increasing the age of criminal responsibility has not been adopted in Britain, where it remains ten years of age. In Germany, Norway and Italy, young offenders are criminally responsible from the age of 14. In Austria and Sweden, the age is 15, and in Belgium 18. Even in countries such as Germany and Italy, which have seen a dramatic rise in juvenile crime, prison is seen as a last resort.
Cases involving young people in Italy more than tripled between 1986 and 1991, as more turned to crime to pay for drugs. Children as young as 14 can be tried as adults in court, but magistrates try to avoid giving prison sentences. Only about one per cent of young criminals end up behind bars.
In Holland, young people are rarely imprisoned. There are only 33 offenders behind bars per 100,000 of population, as against 94 in England and Wales. About 80 per cent of criminal cases involving juveniles are discharged.
Young offenders are most likely to be despatched to schemes which stress community involvement and social responsibility.
In France, where the age of criminal responsibility is 13, sanctions against young offenders range from surveillance under the parents’ control to confinement in a young detainees’ centre.
The system in Sweden, where few young criminals reoffend, is among the most successful. Prison is the last resort even for 18 to 20-year-olds. Offenders under 20 who commit serious crimes are put into “children’s villages” which provide residential support not found in prison.
TV Raid Copycat
A masked schoolboy held up a Chinese takeaway to copy raiders on television’s Crimewatch UK, a court heard yesterday. “I just wanted to be chased like the villains on the telly,” said the 13-year-old.
Nicholas Gareth Jones, prosecuting, said the youngster terrified the takeaway staff with a fake gun. The boy, Of Rumney, South Glamorgan, was found guilty of attempted robbery by a juvenile court.
Yesterday he appealed against the conviction at Cardiff Crown Court. “I told the woman it was just a toy gun,” he said. “I wouldn’t have taken any money.” But Judge John Rutter increased his sentence from 12 to 24 hours at an attendance centre.
1. A copycat crime is one where the criminal copies another crime. In this case, the boy copied a crime he had seen on Crimewatch UK, a TV programme that shows crimes re-enacted by actors and asks witness to the real crimes to give information about them to the police. Villain is an informal word for … and telly is an informal word for … .
2. Which two words indicate that the gun used in the robbery was not real?
3. From the boy’s point of view, what were the extenuating circumstances?
4. Did the judge q… the conviction? No, he d… the appeal and increased the sentence, perhaps because he thought the original sentence was too l… .
An armed police bailiff guards the proceedings and the black-robed judge is “your honour”. He addresses the jury as “ladies and gentlemen” but there any resemblance to an orthodox American court ends. These jurors are not even voting citizens. They are fellow juvenile miscreants who judge their contemporaries in a unique youth court in San Francisco aimed at halting delinquency at its first manifestation. It is attracting widespread notice for its astonishing success; a re-offending rate of only five per cent compared with over a third for the mainstream juvenile system.
To a foreign visitor, the youth court's replacement of a punishing judge with a true jury of peers is most intriguing in an authoritarian US legal system that jails more of its citizens than any other industrialised nation. The court handles only minor offences: drinking alcohol, vandalism, graffiti, and battery. The most common is petty theft, often shop-lifting. As all offences have been admitted beforehand, there is no trial. Names are withheld and schools concealed to avoid factionalism and possible gang identification.
On this Wednesday evening, 42 youngsters file in for jury service in a court normally used for civil litigation. As the hearing begins, the jurors cast knowing looks at the first defendant, whom we will call John. Like him they are admitted offenders. Indeed, sitting on these juries is part of their rehabilitation. After John admitted his offence, he and his parents agreed to co-operate with the court to avoid the harsher route through the juvenile court system. John, nearly 17, has shoplifted two Walkmans and three cartons of cigarettes from a discount store. The police report says he was with his mother when he concealed the items in specially tapered baggy trousers. John says that it was the first time he had stolen and that the goods were intended as Christmas presents to save money. Then he awaits jurors’ questions.
They are hard and shrewd. The judge tells me afterwards that the jurors are tougher on defendants than adults would be. One boy does not believe that it was John’s first time because he went about it too professionally. A girl asks sarcastically “How would your friend feel about your Christmas present if he was busted for receiving stolen goods?” Another juror puts a question encouraged by the counsellors, “How did your offence affect the community?”
The jury retires to private deliberations, while another panel takes its place to deliberate on another case. Later John’s jury returns with à sentence. John receives 85 hours of compulsory community work (which will probably include jury duty) plus 400-word apologies to the store and his mother. He must also write 850 words on “thinking before acting” and another 850 on the consequences of stealing. The programme requires that parents attend counseling, and the director of the scheme has received grateful letters from parents marveling at how family had improved as a result of being forced to examine what was wrong in their relationship with their children.
The success rate of the programme is attributed to the children being involved in the process; the offenders understand why they need to be rehabilitated. The problem with the regular juvenile system is that by the time they get to court they may have broken the law several times.
The session ends with a harangue from the formidable police supervisor; a juror has disrespected the court with inappropriate clothes. Her peers add ten extra community hours on her then and there. Tough justice, juvenile style.
1. What do you think the advantages and disadvantages of the Youth Court are?