‘Save money, protect society and realise youth potential’ is the apt title of a new white paper by the European Council for Juvenile Justice (ECJJ) and the International Juvenile Justice Observatory, which examines how the age of austerity could actually be an opportunity for governments to improve youth justice in Europe. The paper recommends focusing on four key policies: prevention, diversion, community sanctions and reducing imprisonment. Marianne Moore, Director of Justice Studio and author of the paper reflects on its message.
The thing that first struck me when I was researching the white paper, was that there was nothing really original to say. There is somehow this misconception that initiatives that promote the welfare of young offenders will be complex and expensive. Yet this is completely untrue. All of the initiatives that promote the welfare of young people are exactly the same ones that are cheap, and they are also the exact same ones that work in terms of reducing crime. These four basic initiatives: preventing crime in the first place; diverting young people from court; giving them community sanctions; and sharply decreasing the use of pre-trial and custodial detention; not only protect society but they help governments to save money.
The second thing that struck me was that the Council of Europe and the United Nations have been saying this for ages. The Council of Europe wrote their first resolution on youth justice in 1978, over 30 years ago. They, and the UN, have published countless further resolutions, guidelines and rules on youth justice, all of them pretty much saying the same thing. Yet, no one listens! This was completely frustrating to me, as someone who has been in the field for about seven years, but I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be to youth justice specialists who have been working for all of that time. It seemed so disappointing that actually we’ve known the answers all along but no one wants to actually do anything about it.
I think that this is the real motivation and aim of the white paper. It doesn’t say anything new. It just tries to put everything together in one place to act as an easy checklist on improving youth justice systems for those who hadn’t thought about it before. What we really wanted to do with the paper is to use the economic crisis as a catalyst to finally get governments to think about change. Because we want to show that even though economic crises does cause so many additional problems for society, actually it might be just the time to take that risk and set your youth justice system up in the way that the Council of Europe have been advising for all this time.
Now, when resources are tight, seems to be the best time to make the system evidence based, efficient and build on the positive attributes of young people. Young people in the criminal justice system need a second chance and to be helped into education and work. What we would love to see as a result of this white paper would be for governments to stop making youth justice decisions on fearful emotions but on the hard facts of what works, and to ensure that the aim is no longer to damage young people’s life chances but to help young people to realise their full potential. It’s all about turning negatives into positives and starting to take a bit of action – finally!
Read the white paper here.