Young people need to know that actions have consequences

Response: Sentencing of young adults should take their maturity into account | Comment is free | The Guardian

This article, by Vicki Helyar-Cardwell of the Criminal Justice Alliance, appeared in the “Response” section of the Guardian last Wednesday, and relates to an earlier report in which neurologists had said that the age of criminal responsibility in the UK (currently ten) is too low, based on a report issued by the Royal Society. Referencing the same report, there is an article on the paper’s “Joe Public blog” by Caspar Walsh, an author and journalist who works in a young offenders’ institution, that expresses the view that many young violent offenders, when not having to display their streetwise-ness to other inmates, reveal themselves as “vulnerable, damaged, frightened and confused”. The Royal Society report these articles refer to indicates that “key factors around decision making and impulse control are not fully formed until the age of 20 and that teenage brain development varies a great deal from person and is heavily dependent on a mix of upbringing, education, environment, and peer relationships”.

I first heard the argument about the immaturity of young adults’ brain development in the context of American juvenile law enforcement, which treats children in their early teens, or even younger, as adults if they commit a serious enough crime, and allows them to be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. The offences which attract this penalty include “felony murder”, which means participating in a serious crime in which someone is killed — regardless of whether one was there at the point of the killing (for example, being a look-out counts) or whether one knew that anyone was carrying a weapon. “Without parole” can and frequently does mean the convict is never released, although in some states the possibility of executive clemency exists, as is the case with murder in the UK (release must be authorised by the Justice Secretary, or a state official in the USA); however, releases of murderers after 12 or 15 years inside, sometimes more, is accepted as normal in the UK, while in the USA it may be very bad for that politician’s re-election prospects.

The stakes in the UK are generally lower, and the offences more serious and the sentences less so than the look-out example mentioned earlier. Walsh mentions a young offender who had committed a premeditated murder, and received a sentence of a minimum of nine years; an adult murderer would very likely receive a much longer minimum. It is the absolute minimum for murder by an adult, and the only person I have heard of receiving that sentence was Frances Inglis, who murdered her son with a heroin overdose when he was in a coma, believing he was in pain and would never get better (her minimum sentence was reduced on appeal). By his own representation, he had committed the act with careful thought and while sober, but this writer did not believe he really knew what he was doing, while the prison staff did. The article by Vicki Helyar-Cardwell comments on an appeal judgement by Lord Justice Judge (his real surname) that several adults jailed for various offences during the riots last August were not “mindless”, that their “actions were deliberate, and each knew exactly what he (and in one case, she) was doing”. The sentences were of a maximum of four years, and mostly of one to two years, for burglary and theft during the riots.

There is a danger of treating youth as if it were some sort of cognitive impairment, in which young people could not be expected to recognise the gravity of what they are doing. Bo Hejlskov Elvén noted in his book, No Fighting, No Biting, No Screaming, that punishment does not work on people with cognitive impairments and severe autism because they do not understand cause and effect, other than very obvious ones such as when you press a button and something happens, or that rules that apply to the next person apply to them as well, and thus punishment should not be used in facilities that cater to such people. The same is not true of other young people and their ability to know what they are doing should not be underestimated — after all, they know the consequences for the person they hurt.

In fact, young people are given the powerful impression that acts which cause hurt to others, particularly other children and other young people, have no consequences: much bullying, harassment, physical violence and sexual harassment carries no negative consequences for the perpetrator (in fact, they may see their victim being told it is their fault, part of growing up or that they should “just ignore it”) as long as the victim is a peer or young person and not a member of school staff or someone else in authority. Youths often lack the inhibitions of adults, and are often apt to do or say things that adults would not, at least in polite society, either because they have not learned these things, or because rebellion has been made to look “cool”, or because adults will not intervene. This plays out in the streets, where those with obvious disabilities are subject to extreme harassment and violence, sometimes to the point of murder or until they have a heart attack, while young women cannot visit some parts of our cities without experiencing catcalls or more threatening forms of harassment. I have heard equally harrowing things about what goes on in some of our schools: a lady I know told me that a transgendered friend, who had been living full-time as female since aged 12 and was undergoing hormone treatment, committed suicide aged 15 because of relentless harassment and violence from her peers, despite having supportive parents and sensitive school staff. She also said that other pupils (including boys) had used her disability as a means to attack her physically and sexually on more than one occasion.

A large part of the problem is that our schools have a large number of physically adult pupils who have no interest in being there and have no real reason to be there, other than that society has decided that it is preferable to being at work, for someone that age (whether for their benefit, or to keep jobs for older adults), who have adult physical abilities without the liabilities, and as government moves to keep people in school up until the age of 18, secondary schools are likely to become more top-heavy, with more uninterested adult pupils who are able and willing to make life difficult for younger and weaker pupils, and those who actually want to study. Many of those of us who stayed on until 18 or later by choice remember those days as the best of our school days because there were fewer people, more of whom wanted to be there, and a less pressured environment without a school hierarchy (for example, no prefects and all the students being of the same age group).

We should not go any further down the road of making excuses for young people’s criminal misbehaviour by claiming they lack judgement. This excuse should be reserved for the demonstrably cognitively impaired, who in the event of involvement in crime, themselves need to be put in a position where they cannot continue with it, and for those who acted under extreme provocation or pressure. While I accept the point that the age of criminal responsibility could be raised to, say, 12, we should not be unduly lenient with older youths when they hurt other people, whether for gain or for its own sake: the strength that comes with being an adult must come with responsibility, particularly for those in a socially dominant position. There is no reason why adolescence should be as traumatic as it is for many people: it is up to adults to make sure, as much as possible, that children and young people are safe from abuse, including that of their peer group. This means that they should be taught that some behaviours are hurtful, particularly where there is ambiguity (for example: a woman responding with apparent good humour to unwanted male attention does not mean she enjoys it), but teaching empathy only goes so far: it must be clear that behaviour which harms other people carries stiff sanction, and where the harm is severe or the behaviour persistent, it is entirely appropriate that this may include prison time.

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