Knife crime: how former offenders can make great mentors for at-risk teens

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Sean Creaney, Edge Hill University

It’s widely reported that there’s been an increase in street violence, particularly in London – with the number of knife and gun crimes rising. While the causes are complex and multifaceted, victims and perpetrators of serious youth violence often lack a relationship with a trusted adult.

One way to help reduce crime is to use ex-offenders as peer mentors. Those who have overcome adversity and stopped offending can act as positive role models for their peers – especially teenagers who are at risk of committing crime or being drawn into gang activity.

My research found that young people on court orders really value building empathetic and collaborative relationships with professionals who are ex-offenders, and have first-hand experience with the criminal justice system.

When carefully selected, provided with extensive training and given tailored support, former young offenders can be uniquely well-equipped to help their peers in need of support. And they can encourage young people on court orders to engage with criminal justice services and make positive changes in their lives.

Positive peers

Peer mentors can offer advice and support to young people who are experiencing personal, social or emotional difficulties, because they have first-hand experience overcoming such problems themselves. Projects operating around the world offer proof that this can work in practice.

One approach in the US is to recruit ex-offenders as credible messengers who can build trust and inspire change among young people. These mentors, who have transformed their lives, are viewed as assets who can help motivate young people – who are often marginalised and disadvantaged – to make better decisions and desist from crime. The project has been shown to reduce re-offending and improve young people’s self-esteem.

Similarly, the St Giles Trust, based in London, works with young people exposed to or at risk of violence. Their SOS project carefully recruits ex-offenders to engage young people.

The effectiveness of this approach was borne out in my research: in 2016 and 2017, I spoke with 20 young people and 20 professionals from a youth offending service in England, which works with young people who get into trouble with the law. One young person in my study said:

…unless you’ve experienced that, you cannot tell them…you cannot relate to them. Unless it’s happened to you, or someone that you know, there’s no way you can fully understand how they’re feeling.

Teenagers who are at risk of committing crime or being drawn into gang activity may be reluctant to talk to authority figures. But if the person they’re speaking to is an ex-offender themselves, they may be more forthcoming. For example, another of my participants, Anthony (aged 17), spoke passionately about a trusting relationship he had built with one of his workers, who had experience in the care and criminal justice systems.

Anthony said his worker was non judgemental and able to empathise and offer guidance when he was in a difficult situation. He described how he has contacted his worker on many occasions in a state of panic and valued receiving emotional and practical assistance. Anthony described his worker as inspirational, and was keen to follow in his footsteps in the future, by securing a job which involves caring for others.

Another of my participants – Zain, aged 17 – was also inspired by his mentor:

I’d love to do his job. He sort of inspired me. Cos I know about his past, he knows about mine. And it’s pretty similar, do you know what I mean? Grew up on a bad estate, got into drugs.

The right choice

Yet within the justice system there is still some scepticm about whether ex-offenders can steer their peers away from crime.

There are challenges: young people may lack the ability to offer emotional and practical assistance to their peers who are experiencing mental health problems. For this reason, it’s crucial to provide ex-offenders with appropriate training and ongoing support.

What’s more, they may have their own unresolved traumas, which could make it more difficult for them to form constructive relationships with both their peers and professionals. And this is why it’s important for authorities to screen and select the right people.

Yet peer mentoring can be an antidote to the disconnected, unhearing and technocratic criminal justice process. And the young people who engage in mentoring can discover that they have talents and abilities they didn’t know they had.

Because they’re seen as role models, rather than authority figures, young people who are ex-offenders can forge positive and meaningful connections with their peers, to the benefit of both parties. Above all, mentoring gives young people who have overcome their own hardships a chance to help others do the same.The Conversation

Sean Creaney, Lecturer in Psychosocial Analysis of Offending Behaviour, Edge Hill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Feltham ruling shows youth custody fails to meet needs of vulnerable childre

Many young people in detention have a history of childhood trauma. via shutterstock.com

Sean Creaney, Edge Hill University and Michael Richards, Edge Hill University

By placing a 16-year-old child with mental health issues in isolation for a prolonged period of time, Feltham Young Offender Institution in London breached his human rights and contravened prison rules, the High Court has ruled.

The ruling came a few days after Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons said Feltham A – the part of the institution for boys aged 15 to 18 – was “not safe for either staff or boys” in a report published after an unannounced inspection. Parts of the institution were described as “deeply troubling” with issues of violence, uses of restraint techniques and isolation deemed to be serious causes of concern.

Named AB in legal documentation, the child’s solitary confinement for more than 100 days was ruled on July 4 to have contravened Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to a private and family life. He was locked in his cell for in excess of 22 hours a day, for more than 15 days in a row.

The judge, Justice Ouseley, explained that this denied the child the opportunity to an adequate education and to socialise with other inmates. But he dismissed the argument that the boy’s treatment was inhuman and degrading. The Howard League for Penal Reform, a charity whose legal team represents the boy, is now seeking to appeal this part of the ruling.

Despite the child’s challenging behaviour he deserves to have his rights respected and to access appropriate support for his mental health issues and special educational needs. However, the High Court ruling also failed to recognise his need for appropriate support.

Putting distressed children in cells for more than 100 days only exacerbates any pre-existing mental health problems, leaving them vulnerable to traumatic stress. The punishment is the loss of liberty and children should not be doubly punished by enduring ill treatment in poor conditions.

Unmet needs

The child had complex health and social care needs and adverse childhood experiences. But these were disregarded, with security concerns trumping the need for appropriate care – as it often does in custodial settings. He had attachment difficulties following a traumatic childhood that involved being subject to emotional and physical abuse. He suffered from bereavement and had witnessed domestic violence. He was on the child protection register and had had a number of residential placements. The boy was also diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and conduct disorder.

There is a larger problem here: a disproportionate number of children in the youth justice system have experienced trauma. Research has shown that 91% of young people who have committed violent offences had experienced abuse or loss. The prevalence of such trauma in custody can result in children becoming violent, committing sexual offences and misusing substances. Being in solitary confinement can also trigger self-harm and intensify the symptoms of trauma.

Access to support

Young offender institutions and prisons generally do not have the right provisions, expertise and resources in place to support people who need to be cared for: an issue that has intensified following the onset of the government’s austerity programme.

Children with learning disabilities are known to be disadvantaged in prisons and to be more susceptible to bullying, segregation and depression. They can often struggle to follow written instructions relating to prison rules, to complete paperwork, or to make doctors’ appointments. It can be difficult for these children to comply and comprehend what is expected of them. Support tends to be one-size-fits-all – tailored treatment to individuals with learning disabilities is seldom offered.

The ConversationAlthough the rights of children in custody ought not to lag behind the rights of children generally, child prisoners are particularly vulnerable to having their rights abused and should be safeguarded. The Feltham young offender case highlights a grim aspect of youth custody and is yet another indicator of the crisis afflicting prisons in which understaffing, overcrowding, lack of training and high staff turnover are creating a dire situation.

Sean Creaney, Lecturer in Psychosocial Analysis of Offending Behaviour, Edge Hill University and Michael Richards, Lecturer in Applied Health and Social Care, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Hearing from the experts: giving young offenders a voice

Last week the Youth Justice Board launched their Young Person Participation Strategy entitled giving young people a voice in youth justice. The strategy outlines the importance of capturing the views and opinions of young people who offend. Also, what is made clear is that children SHOULD have the opportunity to get involved in decisions about their care and supervision and about how services work (governance). Ultimately, the strategy champions children’s right to a voice, and freedom to seek and impart ideas.

Context

High profile figures have previously called for children to have a stronger voice in the youth justice system. Indeed a report published by Clinks (with Peer Power & Beyond Youth Custody) described the extent of young people’s involvement in the youth justice system, with the majority feeling they are not being heard.

Most recently the Children’s Rights Alliance for England published a detailed briefing paper on children’s experiences of contact with the justice system, detailing unnecessary violence being inflicted on children by police, and one young woman describing degrading treatment by prison staff. Moreover, the Care Quality Commission’s report entitled Not seen not heard found that children are not involved in decisions about their care and that their views are not being represented.

Improving participation

The Youth Justice Board’s participation strategy will help in clarifying that adult practitioners have a responsibility to listen to children and act upon what they say at every stage of the youth justice process (from prevention to resettlement). Although it must be said that young people who offend may be perfectly content for staff to take the lead in organising their intervention, this should not detract from the fact that children who offend are service users with rights and entitlements. They should have the opportunity to be meaningfully heard. Crucially as key stakeholders children who offend can provide unique insight into what works for them and their peers.

What is promoted in the strategy is the importance allowing children to ‘buy in’ to the requirements, provided with opportunities to shape their court order to maximise potential for success. This is important as measures that are controlling and imposed on young people can aggravate matters and lead to resistance, increasing risk of reoffending and compromising public safety.

The ideas and different approaches put forward in the strategy based around more meaningful participatory interventions could help to reconcile a lack of engagement or feelings of disempowerment.

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.

Spalding murders must not be used to justify more punitive responses to young offenders

Tributes left to Elizabeth Edwards and her daughter Katie, murdered in April 2016. Chris Radburn/PA Wire
Tributes left to Elizabeth Edwards and her daughter Katie, murdered in April 2016. Chris Radburn/PA Wire

Sean Creaney, Edge Hill University and Stephen Case, Loughborough University

Two teenagers convicted of stabbing and smothering to death a mother and daughter in their own home in Spalding, Lincolnshire have been sentenced to life in prison. The extreme nature of the sentence – which means the two will not be eligible for parole for 20 years – reflects the severity of the offence.

But the two perpetrators were 14 years of age at the time of the crime – and the sentence, combined with the legal and media response to the crime, does little to reflect the perpetrators’ relative immaturity, irresponsibility or lack of moral and cognitive development.

During the sentencing, the judge, Mr Justice Haddon-Cave, described the killing of Elizabeth and Katie Edwards as “grotesque” and “chilling” and said that it was “a terrible crime with few parallels in modern criminal history”.

Yet the reaction to Spalding case has similarities to the 1993 abduction, torture and murder of two-year-old James Bulger in Liverpool. His murder, committed by two ten-year-old boys, caused public outrage and the perpetrators, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, were demonised by politicians and the media – branded “nasty” and “evil”. John Major, the prime minister at the time, insisted that society should “condemn a little more and understand a little less”. The Bulger murder prompted both the media and government to argue that Britain was living through a “crisis of childhood” – based on a perceived breakdown of moral and social order.

The print media and politicians have historically misrepresented youth crime by distorting the reality of violent behaviour – making serious crimes in which children kill children seem more frequent, widespread and serious than they actually are.

The danger now is that the horrific Spalding murders, like the Bulger murder before them, may be hijacked to service political interest and media agendas. But it would be wrong to use this highly atypical offence to justify the increased criminalisation and demonisation of children who offend.

After James Bulger

Distortion and sensationalising of youth crime has significantly influenced the direction of youth justice policy, and has been employed in a post-hoc way to validate existing policy ideas. For example, the murder of James Bulger led the age of criminal responsibility to be lowered to ten, in line with the ages of Venables and Thompson. Michael Howard, the Conservative home secretary at the time, asserted that young offenders: “will no longer be able to use age as an excuse for immunity from effective punishment”.

The result of this misrepresentation of the scale of the problem of youth crime to serve political and media interests has been an intense fear and mistrust of young people from the general public, accompanied by a desire for increasingly punitive and controlling sanctions. In the process, children who offend have been deprived of their innocence, vulnerability and status as a “child”.

New policies proposed after Bulger’s murder in the 1990s were vote winners and tabloid pleasers. After it came to power in 1997, the new Labour government introduced methods that stigmatised young offenders. These included risk assessment and preventative early intervention, among other “crackdowns”, initiatives, targets, policy proposals and pilot schemes. These were informed by the quick-fix idea that youth crime could be “nipped in the bud” and intervention undertaken before a crime was committed.

Despite pathways into and out of crime being notoriously complex and difficult to measure accurately, the Labour government deployed surveillance, control and regulation of children’s behaviour to predict the “risk” they presented to themselves and others, justifying these early interventions to manage that risk.

Children in prison have become rarer

This emphasis on risk assessment is very slowly being phased out of youth justice systems in England and Wales, but AssetPlus – a new assessment and intervention planning tool – still prioritises the likely risk of reoffending as its key outcome. Preventative intervention remains the basis of AssetPlus.

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Still, since the Conservative-led coalition government took power in 2010, there have been annual reductions in young people drawn into the formal criminal justice process for the first time – building on a trend that began in 2008. Child arrests in England and Wales have fallen by 59% in five years. There have also been annual reductions in the number of children sentenced to custody, which in 2016 are at their lowest levels since 2000.

A case such as the Spalding murders attracts significant attention and publicity. Clearly horrific and devastating though the case is, it remains an extremely rare type of offence. The danger is that such an extreme crime committed by two teenagers could motivate a rapid change in political and public mood and in perceptions of young people.

Despite their seriousness, these high-profile murders are isolated acts and must not be used by the politicians and the media to justify more punitive responses to young people who commit crime.The Conversation

Sean Creaney, Lecturer in Psychosocial Analysis of Offending Behaviour, Edge Hill University and Stephen Case, Professor of Criminology, Loughborough University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Restorative Justice offers benefits to victims and offenders

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Restorative Justice, simply put, is concerned with conflict resolution and the repairing of harm caused by anti-social behaviour and crime. It involves the offender accepting responsibility and apologising to the victim. It is good value for money and can provide great benefits to victims and offenders.

Meeting face to face can be a powerful and rewarding experience for both offenders and victims. It has the potential to reduce stress, trauma and improve self-esteem and achieve reductions in reoffending. In relation to research I have been involved in, victims of some very serious offences including burglary, assault and robbery have benefited from speaking directly to their offenders, explaining how much harm has been caused. In a number of cases, we found offenders listened and apologised directly to their victims. The offenders tended to find it difficult to deal with the fact that they had caused so much harm to another person. For example one offender said: “this is worse than sitting in front of a judge and worse than any sentence a judge could give to me”. In a different case the victim of a section 20 assault and offender met in the prison. The victim did have some questions answered and felt relieved after taking part as they had a better understanding as to why the crime happened. The genuine remorse made the victim feel calmer.

However, there can be problems, especially if offenders are coerced or pressured into accepting a restorative justice intervention. Victims could feel re-victimised and become more fearful. Offenders may be at risk also if victims feel resentful, seeking revenge or excessive punishment. Despite these concerns, the Justice Select Committee recently published a report proposing that all people in the UK should have a legitimate right to access restorative justice. However MPs argued that it is too much of a postcode lottery at present, creating unfairness for both victims and offenders. I welcome the call to expand access to restorative justice. However, I have some concerns:

  • What if people feel dissatisfied and disengage with the process of reconciliation – could it be counterproductive? In other words, could issues be amplified despite the benign intentions of facilitators and supporters?
  • What if there are doubts regarding offender capacity to engage in the process due to, for example, limitations in terms of brain development or acquired head injury?
  • Could due process and proportionality be compromised?
  • Isn’t the offender also the victim, especially as many have suffered loss, trauma and abuse?
  • Are the correct assessments done on both offender and victim – we know that not all victims are “nice people” nor all offenders unpleasant ones?
  • Can restorative justice simply reinforce power differentials, particularly for children?

Some offenders may not meet with their victims for sincere intentions. And despite an offender showing remorse, the victim may not accept the apology possibly exacerbating anger and distress for both parties. However, practitioners properly trained in the use of restorative justice have a fundamental part to play in ensuring offenders and victims do not enter into it for the wrong reasons. As Jon Collins CEO of the Restorative Justice Council has said, quality restorative justice provides the victim with a voice and a chance to move on with their lives. But as Gareth Jones former Chair of the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers has said restorative justice should not be regarded as a cheap “quick fix”. Like all tools, it needs to be expertly utilised in appropriate circumstances to ensure positive outcomes. It should of course be available to all who wish to utilise it if a fair and equitable service is to be achieved.

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.

Young offenders views rendered invalid: children must have a stronger voice in the system

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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.