Interview with Laura Janes on Youth Justice
In his 1938 study English Juvenile Courts, Winifred Elkin referred to "the view so often expressed by the writers of letters to the Press, that the courts have become over-lenient." Seven decades later it seems little has changed. The 2000 British Crime Survey (BCS), for instance, found that 75 per cent of respondents believed the courts treated young offenders too leniently.
In radical contrast, the latest report from the Howard League for Penal Reform - Punishing Children: A survey of criminal responsibility and approaches across Europe - finds that rather than being soft on young offenders,
After welcoming me in to her home in west London, Laura Janes, the Children's Legal Team Leader at the Howard League and the report's author, tells me about her recent visit to Belarus, a country that has the dubious distinction of often being referred to as ‘Europe‘s last dictatorship‘. "Even in a country like that they were very shocked about some of our practices in terms of the age of criminal responsibility". In
As a Solicitor who represents children in custody, 30-year old Janes works on telling cases that are rarely seen in a media typically more interested in heightening the general public‘s fear of youth crime. "I have one child who is in custody for cutting up some papers on her headmasters desk", she relates. "She then threw a pair of scissors. Obviously it's not good to throw a pair of scissors and thank goodness it didn't hit anyone or hurt anyone. And it's not admirable behaviour. But I don't see that it's behaviour that warrants custody."
For Janes this incident is indicative of a culture that is too quick to criminalise children. "When it comes to children we take their liberty much less seriously than adults", she says. "They have much less control over their lives and much less opportunity to object, and much less power and ammunition to fight back."
Asked to explain the
This welfare approach is mirrored throughout other Scandinavian countries and also in
"Lots of young men in adult prisons were children in children's prisons", Janes notes when I ask about the long-term consequences of
In October the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child published a damning report on
Janes herself would like to see the Government take a stronger welfare approach to youth justice. In addition she would like custody to be used only "in the absolute last resort", the age of criminal responsibility to be raised significantly and the Government to fully comply with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. "What the public want to hear from the Government is that we are dealing with the core problems of these young people through investing in social services, mental health provision and constructive activity, so they are not committing crime."
Returning to British attitudes towards children in comparison to the rest of
Punishing Children: A survey of criminal responsibility and approaches across
*An edited version of this article recently appeared in the Morning Star. firstname.lastname@example.org.