Which key factors will help children leaving custody? A magistrate’s view
John Bache, Chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, sets out ways that young people’s chances could be improved on release from custody.
Any magistrate who sits in the youth court will tell you that they only use custody as a last resort. This really is true. Some say it is a myth. It isn’t. We do not want to put a child or young person in custody. We do everything in our power to avoid it if at all possible. Incidentally, a major requirement for the avoidance of custody is for magistrates to have confidence in non-custodial sentencing alternatives.
Magistrates can impose a custodial sentence (Detention and Training Order) of up to two years in the youth court, compared to six months in the adult court. These increased powers are there to encourage magistrates to retain cases in the youth court, rather than send them to the crown court for trial and sentence. Recent legislation (Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, 2012) has made it more difficult for magistrates to impose custodial sentences on children and young people. Magistrates have certainly made a significant contribution to the very satisfactory decrease in custodial sentences for young people over the last few years, because it is they who are making the final decision.
Unfortunately, however, magistrates sometimes have no realistic alternative and a custodial sentence becomes inevitable. We hope that custody is of some direct benefit, specifically in terms of addressing inappropriate behaviour and enabling the young person to obtain some types of educational qualifications which will increase the prospects of gaining useful employment following release.
For the purpose of this short piece, I will list the three requirements which I would like to see on release. They may be unrealistic but that does not make them any less desirable.
These young people have often lacked a useful role model throughout their lives. They need an identifiable and trustworthy person to whom they can turn for help or advice as necessary. Luckier children have parents who will support them in all circumstances. Parents don’t disappear when the going gets tough. Parents are there, come what may. They may well not approve, but they will never desert. A mentor is, to my mind, the most important factor of all. Such people are worth their weight in gold. They should be there whenever they are needed. They should not be “on days off” or “on sick leave” or “on another case”. Is this an impossible role? Probably – unless you include parents, or the perfect girlfriend or boyfriend. But there’s no harm in asking for the world.
Young people with no criminal record find it very difficult to obtain employment, and a criminal record, particularly including a period in custody, reduces their chances dramatically. So should these disadvantaged young people be given an advantage in the employment market? Would that be fair? Or should the problems which they are already experiencing be exacerbated by unemployment, with its increased financial difficulties?
This is probably another unsolvable problem. How can these young people refrain from further offending when they have no money? But financial difficulties are certainly not confined to those released from custody.
In conclusion, my wish list may be entirely unrealistic, but these are three things that really would make a difference.
These views are those of John Bache and do not necessarily represent the views of the Magistrates’ Association.
Which requirements do you think are essential? Let us know in the comments.