Across the youth justice system, young offenders’ views are not being listened to and in turn there has been a failure to act upon their wishes. But if this reluctance to allow youth offenders to have a say in the care they are receiving is not addressed, there will be a negative impact both on their personalities and on the risk of reoffending, explains Sean Creaney.

A context of enforcement, compliance, control, regulation and surveillance pervades youth justice across England and Wales. At its core it is court-ordered, compulsory, and adult-orientated. Such a system is not conducive to children being actively involved in the designing or shaping of policy and practice supervision. Rather than privileging children’s insights, it appears their voices are often marginalised through unequal power relations, and so youth offenders are depicted as being incapable of providing ‘credible’ accounts.

Participatory methods of practice in youth justice are virtually non-existent. This was the outcome of a fascinating report detailing how young people feel they are not being heard. Throughout all the stages of the youth justice system they feel it is a disempowering experience: “We are not listened to; the majority don’t want to listen,” one young person said.

In order to reconcile the lack of user-led engagement of offenders and experiences of disempowerment, the priority should be to involve young people in assessment and decision-making processes – throughout the youth justice system. And although at the practice level this way of working may be more difficult to implement, children must be provided with more creative and flexible opportunities to participate in the care they are receiving. Otherwise, young people may feel further disconnected.

Children engaging in such processes of change may be a challenge considering that some believe young offenders are not entitled to a voice given their ‘offender’ status. With society’s cultural ambivalence towards youth offending, such a tension may be difficult to reconcile. Existing alongside notions that children are cute, content and in need of care is the idea that ‘pain’ must be inflicted on those who offend – acting as a demonstrative example of disapproval.

The idea of allowing the child some control and power over the process is uncomfortable to some. But participatory approaches can provide children with opportunities to share their unique insights into what a criminal life is like for them. Children can explain what works for them, raising points that professionals may not have considered. Children should choose how to participate and be provided with sufficient guidance and encouragement to engage in the process of change, as partners whereby the intervention is not done to but with the child.

Professionals need to accept any criticisms levelled at them from young people and in turn adapt in order to improve. We need to prioritise young people’s voices and understand their lived experiences. In turn, if practice is to become more participatory, professions need to be innovative and consider new ways of working that capture young people’s varying needs.

Professionals may find themselves working with clients in the Youth Justice System who are, it appears, reluctant to change and even resentful towards intervention. There are clearly challenges and complexities in relation to participation and involvement of young offenders in youth justice. However if practitioners are committed to identity transformation, enabling the child to create and sustain a positive new self, this can increase compliance with court orders.

On the contrary measures that are controlling and imposed aggravate matters and lead to resistance, increasing risk of reoffending. When the need to seek compliance is necessary, particularly with regard to children who have complex needs and vulnerabilities and the risks are perhaps greater, children need to ‘buy in’ to the requirements. They need to be allowed to shape what is being asked in order to maximise potential for success. For many of my suggestions to move from being aspirational to reality however, I feel the purpose of the youth justice system – as being the prevention of offending – would need to be adapted to reflect a more holistic participatory view. Perhaps when Charlie Taylor’s review of youth justice is finally published, this will be one of his key recommendations.

Sean Creaney is a Lecturer in Psychosocial Analysis of Offending Behaviour in the Faculty of Health & Social Care at Edge Hill University. He is an advisor at the social justice charity Peer Power, a Trustee at the National Association for Youth Justice, and a PhD candidate at Liverpool John Moores University. He also writes The Youth Justice Blog in Children and Young People Now.

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