The vulnerabilities of childhood are given relatively perfunctory recognition or accommodation by the justice system, which struggles to deal with children’s reduced level of comprehension, and emotional and behavioural development. The complex terminology (reparation, contract, etc.) and the meeting-based, rather than activity-based, approach is too demanding for the majority of the youngest age group (especially 10-12 year olds). It is questionable whether a disposal that is appropriate for a 17 year old can also be effective for a child as young as 10 years of age. This frequently results in the youngest child offenders becoming mystified rather than restored – or reformed – by the process. The stakes are at their highest with children: how their behaviour and problems are addressed in these precious, most formative years will have ongoing impact for many years to come, if not for the whole of the child’s lifetime.
Findings suggest that the current system is not working and proposes a reframing of societal action and reaction to wrongdoing by the very young. It requires a significant change in our conception and treatment of young offenders, not only by government but also by the media and society as a whole. Using the criminal justice system with young people, with only the smallest accommodation (if any) of their status as children, is problematic. An entirely different approach outside the criminal justice system is required, with a greater investment of resources in early intervention, and a greater emphasis on psychological, emotional and educational support.
With regard to victims, very few are prepared to become involved in the process and there is a danger that the current arrangement can cause more harm than good. There is an inherent tension between the rights and responsibilities of young offenders, and the (presumed) wishes of victims to be heard and for harm to be acknowledged. This dichotomy can cause conflicts of interest between the best interests of the victim and what the offender is prepared to do by way of reparation. This issue is further confused because many young offenders are also victims, either directly in relation to bullying or school fights, or because of exclusion or perceptions of being misrepresented or misunderstood by the education or justice systems. Given the attitude of many young offenders, and their own particular needs and difficulties, we should be questioning the benefit of encouraging victims to attend youth offender panels. It may be a rare occurrence for a young offender to give a victim closure at a referral order panel, or to accept responsibility when faced with a room full of adult strangers; instead refusing to apologise or seeking to minimise their offending behaviour. This means that at best the victim becomes little more than a tool in the process; at worst they are further victimised by it.
The contention of this research is that a fundamental paradigm shift in thinking on both a societal and political level is required: from a punitive, criminal justice framework to a consequentialist, community approach.