The major issue with many non custodial sentences is that the public do not perceive them as serious punishments, and when breached, it results in the young offender returning to court, and often a custodial sentence. Diversionary programmes should become much more used with the aim of requiring the young offender to take responsibility for their conduct and undertake appropriate forms of reparation (Davies and McMahon,2007). Greater flexibility is needed with regards to the system of one reprimand and one final warning, as this quite often leads to unnecessary imprisonment.
The Children and Young Persons Act 1963 raised the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales to 10. It is the second lowest in the European Union, behind Scotland with 8. In France it is 13, in Germany it is 14 and in Belgium it is 18, and it is considered that there are no negative consequences to be seen in terms of crime rates in these countries (Goldson,2009). The average age of criminal responsibility across the 27 jurisdictions of the European Union is 14 years. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) recommends 'the age of 12 years as the absolute minimum' and encourages governments to 'continue to increase it to a higher level' (Goldson,2009).
Article 3(1) of the UNCRC provides the most widely adopted interpretation, 'in all actions concerning children, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration' (Goldson,2009). The Beijing Rules for the administration of juvenile justice, adopted by the General Assembly in 1985, specifies that the lower age of criminal responsibility "shall not be fixed at too low an age level, bearing in mind the facts of emotional, mental and intellectual maturity". It also states that countries should "consider whether a child can live up to the moral and psychological components of criminal responsibility" and when the age of criminal responsibility is set too low "the notion of responsibility becomes meaningless" (Goldson,2009).
Many academics argue that a child is 'any human being below the age of 18' (Muncie et al,2002) and the key to reducing offending is through maximum diversion from custody. The deeper young people penetrate youth justice systems, the more damaged and more likely to return to crime they become. McAra and McVie have stated upon assessing the effectiveness of models of youth justice that, quite simply the 'most effective diversionary strategy, is literally to remove children from the reach of the youth justice system altogether, by significantly raising the age of criminal responsibility' (McAra and McVie,2007).
Despite this compelling evidence, the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales remains at ten. Many share the opinion that the 'adultification' of 10 year old children in criminal proceedings cannot be rendered legitimate, when in every other area of law, social rights and responsibilities that 'adulthood' conveys are reserved for those aged 18 years (Goldson,2009). One cannot learn to drive a car until they are 17 and cannot vote until they are 18, yet a child aged 10 is deemed responsible enough to be subject to criminal proceedings. In England and Wales we lock up 23 children per 100,000 of the population, compared with six in France, two in Spain and 0.2 in Finland. This clear comparison shows the extent of the over punitive approach taken in England and Wales, and the failure to effectively deal with youth offending.
In conclusion, although imprisonment is a requirement for reasons of public protection (HO,2006), custody is costly and ineffective with minimal rehabilitative effect, due to increasing pressure on resources and inadequate support on release (Barnardo's,2008). Despite the YJB's attempts to improve post custody provisions, many young offenders continue to be left unsupported. Many are unable to continue with education and training or with substance misuse or mental health programmes on completion of their sentence, and often without suitable accommodation (Soloman and Garside,2008). It is therefore unsurprising that three quarters go on to reoffend (Barnardo's,2008), and it is this issue that needs addressing. We cannot continue 'dumping' young people back into the world that led them to offending in the first place. Through greater post custody support a young person can be prevented from turning back to the life of crime thus reducing reoffending rates.
Those that breach statutory orders are often sent to prison as the government does not know how to deal with them or how to reduce reoffending. It has been shown time and time again that prison is not a suitable solution, or the way forward. However, the problem with alternatives are the lack of public confidence in their success, the opinion that they are not serious punishments (Morris,2007), and that non compliance often results in custody. The focus needs to be on crime prevention rather than imprisonment, and more needs to be done to rehabilitate and support young people leading to a reduction in their presence within the justice system. It is therefore without doubt that ordinarily, locking children up is not suitable and is not the way forward.
Ahmed, M. (2009) 'Charity says diversion schemes will save taxpayer money'. Sainsbury Centre: Invest to keep mentally-ill out of prison. Monday 23rd February 2009 Accessed from: http://www.communitycare.co.uk/Articles/2009/02/23/110765/sainsbury-centre-invest-to-keep-mentally-ill-out-of-prison.html Barnardo's (2008) Locking up or giving up – Is custody for children always the right answer? Accessed from: http://www.barnardos.org.uk/locking_up_or_giving_u Crime and Disorder Act 1998