Rod Morgan: They smoke, drink and behave badly. Will we never learn?

It is no wonder our children are drawn to cannabis and petty crime when we so demonise them


There may be one aspect of what it means to be English about which we can all agree. We love our pets, but don't much like our children. We say we love them, but prefer to have as little to do with them as possible. If we are wealthy we send them off to boarding school as soon as they are capable of answering back, and if we are not wealthy we separate ourselves from them by working the longest hours in Western Europe or by endlessly watching television. We don't talk to, eat with or spend time with them to the degree that our European neighbours do.

The conclusion from the Unicef report that prompted such public hand-wringing when published in the spring, and from other comparative data, is clear. Despite our relative wealth, our young people come out worst among a score of European countries on five out of six dimensions of well-being. The exception, health and safety, where we stand roughly midway down the list, represents no great achievement. It is substantially the consequence of our not allowing our children to go out of the house, or to do anything away from home unaccompanied by an adult until they are teenagers, at which point many of them unsurprisingly go wild, precociously engaging in smoking, binge-drinking, use of illicit drugs and unprotected sex. Whereupon we demonise them in the media, harass them with punitive legislation, and lock up more of them than anywhere else in Western Europe.

This picture is a caricature, but only just. The trend is clear. We are criminalising more and more children and young people – an increase of 26 per cent between 2002 and 2006 – in a period when all the evidence suggests that the incidence of youth offending fell. This is primarily what prompted me to resign as chair of the Youth Justice Board in February. I could not get a single Home Office minister to do anything to reverse a trend that will not reduce the likelihood of citizens being victimised and results in a grotesque waste of scarce public resources. Moreover, after the dreadful death of Rhys Jones in Liverpool, and the deaths of other juveniles apparently at the hands of their peers this year, there is a real risk that this public abuse of our children will get worse.

I am not saying that there aren't some young people whose crimes are so grave they must be taken out of circulation. Of course there are. Gun- and knife-related gang violence is so serious in some neighbourhoods that the solutions must include the incarceration of a few individuals. But there are not twice as many such children and young people as there were 15 years ago, which is the scale of the increased numbers in penal custody. Nor am I saying that children and young people must not be made to answer for their anti-social and criminal behaviour. They must. But that is not best achieved by criminalising them for minor offences, or by adults distancing themselves from them through fear, dislike or lack of appreciation, or by dismissing kids as young as 11 or 12 as "yobs". During my time in Whitehall, I am ashamed to say, that terminology appeared in a Home Office ministerial press release when government policy was ostensibly the promotion of respect.

What to do? I doubt it will cut much ice in contemporary British politics to go on about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child or argue in favour of raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to, say, 14, the average threshold in the rest of Western Europe. I am sure there are commentators who would like to reduce our age of criminal responsibility. What might better succeed, therefore, would be a concerted campaign to reduce the degree to which we resort to the criminalisation of children. And that might be achieved administratively, without resort to legislation.

The biggest driver of child and youth criminalisation is the Home Office "offences brought to justice" (OBTJ) target from the last general election. It is the Government's proud boast that we're well ahead of target, 1.25 million OBTJs by next spring. But how is the figure being achieved? Not by prosecuting and convicting many more serious offenders, whose detection requires serious investment of police resources. On the contrary. The overall number of convictions in court has remained more or less constant. The big increase has almost entirely been achieved by handing out on-the-spot fines and issuing cautions for relatively minor offences. Children and young people, the low-hanging fruit that it's easy for the police to pick, account for a good deal of the increase, and this includes their simple possession of cannabis. Bizarrely, the police have the discretion to ignore an 18-year-old smoking a joint but must arrest a 17-year-old or younger. If we're going to retain an OBTJ target, it must be based on an assessment of seriousness. Sir Ronnie Flanagan's review has something to say about this: the police should generally not be drawn in to deal with school playground-type offences.

Second, serious consideration should be given to Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss's proposals for filtering out cases involving children whose welfare needs (mental health, family neglect and so on) are readily apparent. The Youth Court either needs the power to adjourn proceedings and refer the matter to social services, or we need a local filtering arrangement to ensure that cases that should never go down the criminal justice route are diverted.

Third, we must restore a semblance of discretion to the police so that minor matters involving young children are dealt with more speedily, cheaply and effectively in situ and don't clutter up our court lists and youth offending team caseloads. If neighbourhood policing is to mean anything, it must involve that. We need to do this because, as Lesley McAra and Susan McVeigh's largest cohort study of young people ever undertaken in the UK shows, criminalising children, all other things being equal, increases rather than reduces the likelihood of their further offending.

Rod Morgan is Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Bristol and visiting professor at the London School of Economics

Further reading: McAra and McVeigh "The Impact of System Contact on Patterns of Desistance From Offending" (European Journal of Criminology Vol 4, 2007)

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own