The Reformation of the Age of Responsibility in England and Wales

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In the 19th Century with the introduction of reformatories and industrial schools in England and Wales, there have been many transformations in order to deal with young people who offend. There has been continuous political turmoil and uncertainty over the most appropriate solution to best deal with young offenders (McVie, 2011). The Child Act 1908 had a separate distinctive system based on juvenile court, The Children’s and Young Persons Act 1933 had to consider the welfare in any case involving a child offender and the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 favoured care orders and community-based involvement over the juvenile court. In the current 21st Century, the youth justice system has been designed to hold the youth offender accountable for their offences in the ways of restorative justice while keeping their welfare paramount. It claims to want a restorative and re-integrative approach while holding a punitive measure (Muncie, 2015).

In the Children and Young Persons Act 1969, Labour imposed that children should be dealt with independently and away from the court system. The 1969 legislation implemented two key aspects; the development of social control mechanisms specific to young people and a widening of the net of social control which caused a drastic increase of non-serious delinquents being reprimanded in custody (Brown, 2005). The Labour party envisioned those in full-time employment, having access to good education and an enlarged welfare state. These attempts at improving social hurdles would be seen to help the root cause of young offending. A white paper published in 1965 had a philosophy which advocated the need for a range of interventions for young offenders to be dealt with in social welfare and supervision in the community rather than punishment in custodial settings. However, in the 1970’s a large portion of the Children and Young Persons 1969 act were never implemented (Muncie, 2015).

It was becoming clear that the welfare-orientated measures implemented by the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 were steering towards chaos. Older juveniles were being forced to move to adult jails where their presence was causing an enormous strain on prison numbers. This was a direct contradiction of the 1969 Act, in fact, instead of acting as an alternative to custody as intended, more and more pre-delinquent children were being drawn into the net of the youth justice system.

Youth justice’s government spending was spiralling out of control. The home office called to re-evaluate costs towards youth justice punitive measures, and the prison was deemed expensive and inefficient and counterproductive (Pitts, 2001).

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During the 1970s, young people continuing to be drawn into custody more frequently and earlier in their criminal ‘careers’ for less severe offences. The Conservatives objected to state intervention, and in 1979, the Thatcher era, there was a call for treatment of offenders on an individualism and consumerism basis. The ‘short, sharp, shock’ would be introduced to detention centres, which was the rule of law implemented by the Conservative election campaign (Pitchford, 2000). Theories were developed of ‘fighting crime’, restoring social discipline and again heavily implementing individual responsibility. The previous rules of the Children and Young Persons Act 1969 of opposing the custodial punishments were phased out and abandoned (Muncie, 2015).

A coalescence between academic research, social workers and including the police was formed in order to reduce juvenile delinquency. A consensus-based on three principals were developed; diversion, decriminalisation and de-incarceration, which produced a progressive development in the treatment of juvenile delinquents. In terms of the policy, these principles were the ‘minimal necessary intervention, systems management, community supervision, effective monitoring and alternatives to custody’. The principal objective of Thatcherism was to keeping young people out of the penal custody and most importantly, reduction in expenditure. The onset of the neo-liberal style of governing increased the importance of giving more attention to ‘unofficial forms of discipline (Goldson & Muncie, 2006).

Between the 1980s and 1990s, there was a reduction of the number of young offenders in England and Wales, also a decrease in those sent into custody. This was partly achieved through informal police cautioning and diversion from penal institutions and the development of community-based schemes that work as an alternative to custodial punishments (Muncie, 2015). During the 1990s, more stringent policies were implemented after the extensive media coverage on the case of the 2-year-old boy, James Bulger, who was murdered by two 10-year-olds. This caused moral panic surrounding the youth justice system, and children who committed crimes were represented as ‘evil’ in the media (Case, Johnson & Manlow et al., 2017). The Conservatives took a retributive turn and put pressure on the government to revise the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (1994) to include secure training centres for under 15-year-olds. This was deemed as a means to prevent re-offending through the Conservatives ethos of ‘prison works’ and ‘condemn more, understand less’ (Goldson & Muncie, 2006).

In the aftermath of the Bulger case, up until the 1990s, a child under the age of 14 in England and Wales could not be held accountable for their crimes unless the prosecution could prove they understood their actions. This principle was considered ‘doli incapax’, meaning they are incapable of ‘evil’ and could not be held fully responsible for their actions. Since the 14th Century, in the eyes of the law, it was presumed that those under the age of 14 could not be held accountable for their crimes (Muncie, 2015). However, in the 1990’s the notion of doli incapax came under fire due in part to the Bulger case, and was abolished by the Crime and Disorder act 1998 and the age of responsibility was changed to 10 years old (Bandalli, 1998).

A bifurcated system where justice and welfare were being debated back and forth proved serious and more persistent than the rest. A new form of discourse in youth justice was being made way for, and that was ‘corporatism’. This was the era to embrace the ‘populist punitiveness’ imposed by Tony Blair. This was introduced as he believed that increased punishment would crackdown on youth crime through general deterrence which would, in turn, increase overall morale of the public, and in turn increase votes (Crawford, 2002).

In the 1999 Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act, a new wave of reforms was introduced by the New Labour party. A transformation of the youth justice system in England and Wales began to take place. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which was previously outlined in the notion of the white paper of ‘No more excuses’, was evolving into the 1999 Act. The newer 1999 Act built on the principles of Restorative Justice. Restorative justice was defined in the white papers as the ‘3 R’s’; Reintegration, restoration and responsibility. Both the 1998 and 1999 established notable changes to the youth justice system. The 1998 act developed the Youth Justice Boards (YJB) and Youth Offending Teams (YOTs). The reforms package put forward by the governments was an attempt to distance itself from the previous punitive justice and move towards a more restorative justice future where social contexts in mind when sentencing (Crawford, 2002). 

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