Wales’ national youth justice strategy has, since 2004, promoted ‘children first, offenders second’ as a core principle. This is generally viewed as indicative of the efforts of successive Welsh Governments to embed youth justice–a policy area for which they have no legislative competence–into their wider social justice agenda of rights, equity, and well-being. In their latest youth offending strategy, the Welsh Government and the Youth Justice Board Cymru (2014) clearly set out an expectation for all services who interact with children and young people to treat children who have offended and/or are at risk of offending as ‘children and young people first’. This study investigates whether, and to what extent, a ‘children first’ philosophy guides the ‘breach practice’ of Welsh Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) and Youth Courts. To this end, research was undertaken with two YOTs and their associated Youth Courts between September 2017 and April 2019. The research reveals little awareness among practitioners and magistrates of the Welsh youth justice strategy. Although most managers were familiar with the phrase, few understood ‘children first’ as a philosophy. While a commitment to addressing children’s welfare needs –one of the core principles of a ‘children first’ philosophy–was evident in most staff’s beliefs and practices, this was generally seen as something to be done alongside ensuring the child complied with their order, rather than something that was essential to, and had a direct impact on, the child’s compliance. Even when welfare needs were acknowledged as a barrier to compliance, breach action was often still justified on the basis that the child’s responsibility to comply superseded everything else. Other common justifications for instigating breach proceedings included adherence to the National Standards; concerns for ‘public protection’; and organisational reputation. In court, there emerged a clear pattern of children pleading ‘guilty’ to offences of breaching a statutory order without having properly understood the charge. Children’s understanding of the proceedings and outcomes was further impeded by the poor quality of the efforts made by magistrates to engage them. This effective absence of due process, combined with the YOTs’ tendency to instigate breach proceedings despite the presence of barriers to compliance, resulted in the ‘responsibilisation’, criminalisation, and punishment of children for breach offences for which their ‘guilt’ was doubtful. These outcomes, and the related decisions and processes, seem far removed from the aim and principles of ‘children first’ youth justice.
|Date of Award
|Kate Williams (Supervisor) & Jonathan Evans (Supervisor)