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Essays Youth Offending

Youth Justice Policy in Britain (1945-1981) – from Punishment to Welfare

rodrigo | November 24, 2016

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  1. Introduction

The discussion of the youth justice policy in Britain has re-gained importance in the aftermath of the August 2011 riots, which spread across London and other major cities in the country. Think tank analysts and policy experts argued, that the youths which allegedly took part in the riots, were disillusioned and de-motivated young people from broken homes (Politics UK, 2011). The deep societal problem behind youth engagement in the London riots raised the question about the efficacy of the youth justice system in Britain, and debates about its institutional reform permeated the political discourse.

After the gruesome murder of James Bulger in 1993 by two ten-year old boys the public and policy-makers became convinced, that only a general policy reform of the youth justice system is not sufficient. Rather a reform of specific sectors such as the ones dealing with anti-social behaviour and gang crime was much more urgent (Guardian, 2011). The purpose of this short essay is to critically review the different phases in the development of the youth justice system from the 1940s to 1981. Based on the conclusions, in the final section recommendations for policy reform will be made.

  1. Research question

The purpose of this essay is to critically approach the different stages in the evolution of the youth justice policy in Britain. Based on this observation, the paper will provide an assessment of how the system has evolved and what the main trends in its transformation are. For clarity the author has decided to separate the observations in the following stages – from punishment to welfare, young offenders enter the community, and the strengthening of the Intermediate Treatment. Each one of them will be critically analysed in the following sections.

  1. The youth justice system in Britain: a review

Before we proceed with the examination of the main developments in the youth justice system in the set period, it is important to provide a brief overview of the main components and structures of this system.

Similarly to other types of youth justice systems, the British one inclines towards prevention, rather then retribution (Bottoms & Dignan, 2004). Bottoms and Dignan (2004) refer to the British youth justice system as a correctionalist and committed to the prevention of committing offences. The idea of the correctionalist system implies stronger intervention on behalf of the state, as opposed to earlier views such as letting young offenders grow out of the crime.

This characteristic trend, experts argue, reflects a much more complex and multi-level approach to dealing with youth crime, involving different elements such as parents and agency teams. The trend has been accompanied with an intensive institutional reform, such as the introduction of the semi-independent body of the Youth Justice Board with the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act (Community Care, 2010). In the years to follow, there has been a trend for the unification of all activities related with youth justice under the umbrella of a single department – the Ministry of Justice, in order to create accountability and higher levels of responsibility in one of the most important and problematic policy areas in Britain.

  1. The 1940s – from punishment to welfare

It is now clear that society’s views on crime change over time and are susceptible to historical and social conditions. The youth justice system in Britain is an example of the transformation of the concepts of crime and offender in social and political terms. Therefore the way young criminals have been treated by the criminal justice system has been a subject of reform throughout the years.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, perhaps one of the most important developments in the youth justice system is that a line between children and adult offenders was finally drawn. For the first time in the early 30s and 40s, the courts were obliged to consider the welfare of the child (Thorpe et. al, 1980). This marked a significant transformation of the whole justice system, because it determined a different role of the courts, related not only with taking punitive action, but also correction and care for the young offenders. It is now clear that the transformation from punishment to welfare has been later underpinned in another important document – the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Youth Justice Board, 2008). As the later stages of the British youth justice system demonstrate, the latter has always been responsive to the developments, taking place in the field of human rights at any particular time.

  1. The 1960s – young offenders and the community

The trend towards welferism which started in the early 1930s continued in the next several decades, and had its peak in the 1960s, when a special legislation, concerned with the social integration and correction of the young offenders was passed (Youth Justice Board, 2008: Thorpe et. al, 1980). In 1969 the Labour government passed a legislation to introduce a revised youth justice system, based on welfare principles and reformation of criminals (Thorpe et. al, 1980). The 1969 Children and Young Persons Act emphasized the role of the community as the environment, which would play a major role in the social integration of those who committed offences. The act also established the so-called “halfway house” which was the middle way between being subject to a Supervision Order (which requires minimum contact between supervisor and young person) and being taken into care (Youth Justice Board, 2008; Children and Young Persons Act, 1969). This new establishment came to be defined as Intermediate Treatment (IT) and according to some observers was the foundation of the modern youth justice system.

Another intended development of this period, which however, did not come to fruition, was the attempt to increase the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years. Prior to the 1969 Act, the criminal responsibility age was only 8 years (Thorpe, et.al, 1980).

The developments which took place between the 1940s and the late 1960s are a result of the rise of the welfare state in Britain and the rest of Europe. A major historical and sociological trend, the rise of the welfare state, which affected almost all policy sectors, was provoked by the advent of capitalism and consumerism, which according to social historians, exacerbated the class divisions in British society (Greenaway et. al, 1992). The youth justice system was no exception of this trend, and the establishments of the 1969 Act were a signifier of the fusion between community and policy. Youth crime was no longer a detached criminal activity for which only courts had responsibility – in the late 1960s it became a priority for the whole of the British society.

  1. The 1970s and 1980s – the strengthening of the Intermediate Treatment

This decade was marked by persistence in the community-based treatment of young offenders. The role of community remained strong, and some judicial changes, such as the inclusion of “specified activities” in the Intermediate Treatment occurred. These were used to persuade magistrates to use communal sentences, instead of custodial sentences (Youth Justice Board, 2008).

In this sense, the young offenders were made to participate in the welfare of the community as part of their correction process. In the light of these developments, it is interesting to notice that the connection between the community and young offenders remained twofold – young offenders were still treated as part of society, despite their violations. At the same time they were expected to contribute to its development. In its turn, society was to participate in their rehabilitation and integration in the post-offence stage. This is an important characteristics of the British youth justice system, because it reveals two things – that there is no positive connection between decreased custody and the level of youth offences, and that the British society took a middle stance between two types of justice – restorative justice, focusing on repairing the harms, resulting from the offence, and retributive justice, which relates to facing the consequences of the punishment imposed. This middle stance was about to change in the 1990s, when the cruel murder of two-year old James Bulger by two ten-year old boys was to push back the youth justice system towards punitive actions.

  1. Conclusion and recommendations

This essay has attempted to critically examine the main stages in the development of the British youth system between 1945 and 1981. Two major developments have been discussed – the transition towards welferism and the steps towards correction, rather than punishment and custodial action. The role of the society has remained significant, and despite the developments of the early 1990s, the re-integration of young offenders has remained on the agenda.

After the murder of James Bulger in 1993, public attention was once more shifted towards the reform of the youth justice system, and more specifically against the prevention of offending and re-offending, rather than mending the consequences of it. Therefore it is important that government efforts targeted towards bringing all the institutions involved in the British youth system under a coordinated scheme of action. Different units such as social workers, community volunteers, the police and those involved in education are to work together through enhanced dialogue. This means that the sectoralism in the criminal justice system needs to be reduced, and replaced with harmonization of efforts of different actors on all levels. This would ensure a holistic, rather than sectionalized approach to solving issues, related with youth crime in Britain.


Bottoms, A. & Dignan, J. (2004) “Youth Justice in Great Britain”, Crime and Justice, Vol. 31

Children and Young Persons Act (1969), 22 October, The National Archives,

Available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1969/54

Retrieved 03.03.2012

Community Care (2010) “Ministry of Justice to take control of Youth Justice Board”, 20th May, Thursday,

Available at: http://www.communitycare.co.uk/Articles/20/05/2010/114543/ministry-of-justice-to-take-control-of-youth-justice-board.htm

Retrieved 03.03.2012

Greenaway, J.R., Smith, S. & Street, J. (1992) Deciding Factors in British Politics, London: Routledge  ch. 2  pp. 29-39, ch 3.

Guardian (2011) “What next for youth policy”?, August, 25,

Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/public-leaders-network/blog/2011/aug/25/tony-blair-youth-policy-intervention-reform

Retrieved 03.03.2012

Politics UK (2011) “Comment: What is causing the riots in London?, Nick Cowen, Monday, 8th of August,

Available at:


Retrieved 03.03.2012

Thorpe, D.H, Smith, D., Green, C.J, & Paley, J.H (1980) Out of Care: The Community Support of Juvenile Offenders Allen and Unwin

Youth Justice Board (2008) “A Brief History of the Youth Justice System”,

Available at: http://labspace.open.ac.uk/file.php/5193/YJ_k523_1/sco.htm

Retrieved 03.03.2012


Tags: discussion of the youth justice policy in Britain has re-gained importance in the aftermath, which spread across London and other major cities in the country, Youth Justice Policy in Britain (1945-1981) – from Punishment to Welfare

Category: Essay & Dissertation Samples, International Relations, Social Science

Youth justice system

Law- Criminal Procedure Over recent years, new legislation has made major changes to the treatment of young offenders and the operation of the youth justice system. Critically assess the youth justice system as it now operates. Do you consider that a the government aim to reduce youth offending is being achieved.

According to a Home Office study, one out of four teenagers could be classified as a serious offender, with high potential to become a criminal . The 2003 crime and justice survey suggests that there are 3.8 million “active offenders” in England and Wales . Government and the society always hope that these young offenders would grow out of their crimes eventually. But this may not be the case under all circumstances.

There are a large number of exceptions where they become bigger criminals posing higher threats to the society. Offence by teenagers is much higher than it was estimated. It is also a fact that many of these potential criminals start with a humble beginning in the early teens. A Home Office study says that 57% of the male population between 12 and 30 have committed at least one crime . This obviously does not mean that the girls are not offenders at all. They can claim an equal success in crime. They start quite early on drinking, drug addiction, shoplifting, prostituting, buying stolen goods knowingly, causing criminal damage to public property etc. Both boys and girls involve in serious fights, thieving at work places, foul mouthing, insulting and offensive language, ridiculing and indulging in racist offences. 

Youth justice system

In the last hundred years, juvenile justice is concentrating on punishment and welfare both. England earlier had the unfortunate system of juvenile justice of imprisonment, transportation and even death penalty, regardless of the age of the offender. Now children and adults are treated differently and juveniles have their own courts to try their offences. A large number of them are considered to be suffering from behavioural disorders and in such cases, they are sent for psychiatric treatments and psychotherapies. The Punishments are milder keeping in view of the offence and the age of the offender and his responsibility in the crime. The most important point here is the welfare of the child and delinking him from later life offences . 

Children Act 1908, Children and Young Persons Act 1933, Criminal Justice Bill, 1948, Children Act 1948, Children and Young Persons Act, 1969, and Children’s Act, 1989, steadily passed various beneficent laws for the children. Young offenders naturally have to be treated with care, as they might not be fully responsible for their crimes and their future should never get marred due to a crime committed when they are still juveniles. Over the years, the stress has shifted from punishment to welfare with more planning for their adult life. Condemnation of the crime has been steadily becoming milder and concern for the adult life had been growing.

Today juvenile crime is being treated as a social melody. Records are not only maintained by the Police, but also by the Social services  Police and Social Services work from many angles now. Finding the family, gaining the cooperation of the family, trying to contact the child as often as possible even after he returns home, interviewing the rest of the family trying to locate the source of the problem, establishing an interview schedule, insisting on a self-reporting system have all become part of the welfare process of a child offender. Arrests are made only under unavoidable circumstances and most of the arrests result in letting off the child with a warning, without charging in the hope that it might dishearten the youngster from launching into a career of offences. Ethnic background, family circumstances, possible abuse at home or outside, mental deficiencies and racial discrimination are all evaluated while providing a long-term social care.

A recent addition is Crime and Disorder Act, 1998, which addresses the persistent young offenders, according to which the police or local authority can apply for an Anti Social Behaviour Order from a magistrate court when a child is above ten and is distinctly anti-social and this order will be in force for two years and more. This depends on the eligibility of circumstances and other measures need not have been exhausted.

Child Curfew Schemes work on dual purpose, where they discourage children to be on the street at night and protect citizens from the hooliganism of such children. In June 2000, Child Safety Order came into being to place a criminal minded child lesser than ten under the supervision of a social worker. The Detention and Training order (Sections 73-79) provides new custodial sentences that could prevent further crimes .

Under Final Warning Scheme, 10 - 17 year olds are given final warnings, instead of repeat cautioning. Since June 2000, Parenting Orders enable the Magistrate’s Court to pass an order on the parents of a perpetually offending youngster urging them to control their offender child by attending to school and stay at home under parental supervision. Being out in the night could place the youngster in danger of being exploited by pimps, drug sellers, criminals and murderers. Reparation Orders insist that the offending youngster, according to the seriousness of the offence committed, would render reparation of 24 hours to the victim or community at large directly or indirectly, within three months of committing the offence, mostly in the form of a letter of apology, clearing graffiti, personally apologising, or repairing the criminal damage in suitable way. Truancy Powers are used by the Police to track down offending youngsters with the help of school or local authority. Truancy has been perceived as a definite path to criminal life.

Crime and Disorder Act, 1998, provides many more tools of justice and welfare to young offenders and to the community. Section 37 focuses on the duties, functions of the justice practitioners to prevent the youngsters from offending and reoffending. Section 38 establishes the duty and cooperation of local authorities, social services, educational institutions, police and other Youth justice services .

Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, has brought in a few more changes into youth justice. Youngsters who have pleaded guilty and those who are first-time offenders could be referred to a youth offender panel, which would concentrate on reforming the youth. Many measures towards restorative justice like integrating with family and community, reattending the school, assuming responsibility of guilty behaviour, and these are increasingly becoming part of justice meted out to the offenders.
Witness protection, especially underage witnesses, sometimes even with mental and physical handicaps, are screened, hidden from the offender, or witnessing on television, emptying the court room during witnessing, clearing the courtroom or giving banning orders to journalists who are warned against breaching the privacy and could be prevented from publishing details, video conferencing with the witnesses, allowing pre-recorded tapes as evidence and special communication facility for physically impaired witness or offender came into existence depending n this Act. Disengaged youngsters get into criminal life easily and the new justice and reforms are encouraging youngsters either to pursue their education further, or get themselves employed for the personal good and for the good of the community at large.

Today’s Youth Detention Centres have full sized arcade game consoles, TVs, computers and furnished rooms and according to reports they are treated incredibly well, in the hope that they would come out of their offensive habits and become responsible members of the society. The spoiling has gone to the extent of drawing criticism from the public that instead of learning any lessons, most of the youngsters are becoming more destructive and foul-mouthed!

Offenders are tested for drugs regularly and psychological help and guidance is rendered as part of the rehabilitation process. Personal advisers are provided. Employment training seems to have shown remarkable possibilities. Researches on the family background, homelessness and links between Dyslexia and crime go on relentlessly trying to better the understanding of young offenders. In 2002, July, Home Secretary unveiled new measures according to which, offenders between 10 and 11, who are too young to be imprisoned, would be remanded instead in high supervision foster placements. Round the clock specialist support, permission and encouragement to continue contact with family and friends are provided through National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders.  Therapeutic counselling for sexual offenders is given with better results. The Youth Court that started operating in October 1992, started issuing custodial sentences had been a resounding success . Majority of these sentences were of three months or less. Youth courts tend to be less formal than the adult courts. The recently introduced counselling and interviewing had been of immense help in establishing and understanding the background of the offender, and with psychological help, in most of the cases, the possible motive, reason or excuse too could be found out. Drug use, another terrible menace, too could be detected from the interviews or studies . The last decade of the century had not been particularly encouraging where youth crimes are concerned . Separate facilities are created for female offenders, as they always stand in need of protection from their male counterparts. Sentencing does not target only on the welfare and guidance for the youngster, but also on the community that has to be protected from the offenders and this includes offences of racial discrimination .

Community mediation centres are viewed as part of the cultural service today. They try to work on the principle of elimination of bad company, one of the many factors that take a child into criminal life. Much is expected out of professional treatment and effective counselling with positive and supportive atmosphere. Balanced daily activities have proved to be beneficial on young and impressionable minds. There is a stress on moral development and moral education in modern societies.

It was reported in September 2004, that Government would bring the young offenders faster to justice . Government has been continuously working in reducing the crime of juveniles and their rehabilitation with single-minded determination. There is remarkable improvement in handling the court cases with all professional help in place .  The Youth Justice Board has funded many programmes that are designed and conducted to prevent juvenile offending. Many programmes on drug and alcohol abuse, safe sex, education on HIV and importance of school and later, University education have all been conducted. They also conduct programmes with the intention of humanising the youngsters and steer them away from the path of crime. In this direction, apologising and compensating the victims of the offence has created certain goodwill in the community.  Frequent assessment of all the connected agencies have kept them as efficient as possible. They are also subjected to continuous scrutiny due to the ongoing researches and surveys.

Government has done not only adequate work, but also work that could be classified more than necessary. If one goes through the various reports carefully, some of them positively regret the indulgence with which Government is approaching this issue. One of the reports regretfully points out that juveniles are so thoroughly spoilt that instead of improving, they are becoming downright offensive. They treat the staff with great disdain, ridicule them and try to get away with cheeky and disturbing behaviour only because of their age. Most of them show absolutely no desire to change and insist on remaining uneducated and ignorant. The facilities provided by the Government are so adequate that they try to return to the same centres again and again. They also achieve in making friends with likeminded counterparts. Most of the families want them to return to the same place, to avoid unpleasantness at home. The family would have moved on and it would also have been difficult to provide space for the juvenile with dubious records. Sometimes, they have to think about the other children. Some parents fear the immoral effect an offender child could have on other children of the family and wishes to keep the youngster far away from the other children which is understandable.

This picture is definitely a hopeless one; but there are other encouraging reports, where they accept that the recent laws had been very helpful in reforming some of the offenders. Still it cannot be denied that amongst some of the offenders reoffending is steadily increasing. Behaviour in care centres, usually ends up with the offended offender throwing the TV at the wall and very patiently, the authorities replace it with a brand new TV! Perhaps the offenders should be treated with a little more discipline, without making the place so desirable, that an offender would nostalgically return there again and again!

Government insists on better and more involved role of Schools and families in the welfare of the child. It is not possible to guide the child through a third person, that is, at the moment, is the Government. Child requires emotional and friendly ties at home and society and this could be provided by parents, peers and schools. However hard the Government tries to fill in that place, it would never be possible for its agencies to do so. Emotional ties, culturally developed since birth at home and in the community, are absolutely important for any human being, however individualistic we are today. Hence, the duty lies with friends, schools and family and if they provide adequate support to the offender, it would not be very long before he starts responding. So, young offenders cannot be the responsibility of Government alone.

It should not be assumed that dealing with the young offenders, punishing them with understanding, dealing with their various backgrounds and reforming them are matters of ease and comfort. They could become downright offensive in their ignorance and newfound importance. They are too young to realise that the justice agencies are bending backwards to please them and facilitate them only because of their determination to cure them of all evils. There are instances, when a juvenile offender became singularly dangerous. There are also pathetic and disturbing instances when these unhappy souls get into the mood of self-harming. With the right attitude created by thoughtful laws, Government should be able to bring down the number of offences steadily, and succeed in making these youngsters part of the society. Community’s role is not small either. Great support, understanding and empathy should be shown by the community.

Another agency that could be enormously helpful in juvenile justice is media. Instead of dishing out sensational stories and make the offender popular throughout the islands, it would be a great help if such budding criminals receive as less attention from the media as possible. What the offender of tender age needs is understanding, sympathy and sensitivity from all quarters. If media takes up a vengeful attitude targeting the offenders without restrain, it would not take very long for the offender to turn into a bigger criminal. If Government has to bring more legislations, they should find a way of restraining the media at necessary quarters, instead of allowing it to work unbridled in the name of ‘freedom of the press’, which might become a crucial negative point for the freedom of ordinary people. This mainly applies to the family of the juvenile offender that would be marred for generations for no particular fault of theirs.


  1. Annika Snare, Ed., Youth, Crime and Justice, (Oxford University Press, 1991)
  2. T. Ferguson, The Young Delinquent in his Social Setting, (Oxford University Press, 1952)
  3. J.A. Walter, Sent away, A Stud of Young Offenders in Care, (Farmborough, Teakfield Limited, 1978).
  4. John Pitts, Working with Young Offenders, (Hampshire: British Association of Social Workers, 1999).
  5. Roger Graef, Living Dangerously, (London, Harper Collins Publishers, 1993).
  6. David McAllister, A Keith Bottomley, Alison Leibring, From Custody to Community: Throughcare for Young Offenders, (Aldershot: Avebury, 1992)
  7. David O’Mahony and Kevin Haines, An Evaluation of the Introduction and Operation of the Youth Court, (Home Office Research Study, 1996)
  8. Maggy Lee, Youth, Crime and Police Work, (Hampshire, Macmillan Press Ltd., 1998)
  9. Ann Hagell and Tim Newburn, Persistent Young Offenders, (London: Policy Studies Institute, 1993).

Online Sources

1.    http://www.ukcjweblog.org.uk/categories/youngOffenders/ accessed on 15.2.2005.
2.    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/963871.stm  accessed on 15.2.2005,
3.    http://www.crimereduction.gov.uk/toolkits/py020402-table1.htm#4  accessed on 16.2.2005.
4.    http://www.crimereduction.gov.uk/toolkits/py020402-table2.htm   accessed on 16.2.2005.
5.    http://news.scotsman.com/latest.cfm?id=3448076  accessed on 16.2.2005.
6.    http://www.epolitix.com/EN/News/200406/5e4c1668-3fdd-46de-a3bb-d7a76cebb915.htm   accessed on 17.2.2005.

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