The question of whether there is a place for social work in a criminal justice policy for young offenders will be discussed during this essay. There will be arguments for and against and these in turn will be debated to reach an amicable conclusion.

Nowhere in the criminal justice system are the tensions between competing philosophies and approaches to crime and its control, more explicit than in relation to young offenders. Disentangling help or treatment from punishment has, in practical terms, never been straightforward, but is particularly difficult when the welfare of the child must be considered alongside his or her punishment (Baldock et al 1999: 536-537).

In addition to tensions between care and control and public protection, criminal and anti-social behaviour by young people tends to be used as an indicator for the moral climate of the nation. When this behaviour is deemed to be high, the resulting moral panic often leads to policy responses that are tougher than are warranted by the original incident (Baldock et al 1999: 536-537). For example, there was the disproportionately heavy deterrent sentence imposed for mobile phone theft as part of a crackdown on street crime. By comparing policy responses similar to this over the past thirty years, conflicting attitudes towards young offenders can be traced.

We Will Write a Custom Essay Specifically
For You For Only $13.90/page!

order now

The Audit Commission in 1996 was asked by the government to investigate how frequently today’s young adults are involved in the criminal justice system. The paper which was published as a result of this investigation was called ‘Misspent Youth’ as it showed a large sum of money was being spent on young offenders. Seven million offences are committed each year by young people, on top of a further five and a half million recorded offences. There is a major concern about the vast sum of money being spent, alongside a concern for the victims and the overall impact the process will have on them (Audit Commission 1996).

Concern for victims was balanced by concern that the severity of the criminal justice system seemed to be losing its impact on youth. Youths were being cautioned three or four times, which was a source of frustration for those involved. The police solve around five percent of the crimes and only three percent of the offenders are cautioned further. This procedure is very costly at around �1 billion a year. This works out to be �30,000 per young person (Audit Commission 1996). To try and prevent young people from committing offences the Youth Offending Team (YOT) will get involved. This will not only look at the offence committed but also the young person’s social background. In turn by spending money on the YOT it should reduce costs in the long term.

It is not entirely true that every young person who gets into trouble with the police should be convicted and sentenced. It has become clear in a number of cases that custodial sentences can be detrimental and unnecessary. It is clear that there is scope for other solutions. For example, the Anti Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) was introduced under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, as a new provision to prevent crime and disorder. It was to hopefully decrease the amount of disorderly or ‘pre-criminal’ behaviour committed by young people. Although it was not set-up to be aimed specifically at young people, it is often used for them and was thought to counter the growing rise of youth crime.

The definition of Anti Social Behaviour (ASB) is “acting in a manner that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household (as the defendant)” (Squires 2004: Lecture Notes). The reasons for being issued with an ASBO can range from drug and substance misuse and prostitution, to rowdy behaviour and vehicle related nuisances (Home Office, Research and Development and Statistics Directorate).

At the same time the ASBO was introduced, the Acceptable Behaviour Contract was introduced. It allowed for a contract to be drawn up between the police, community safety officers and the young person together with his or her family. The overall contract was an outline of the certain activities the young person was prevented from doing. For example, a contract may have been drawn up for the young person to stop using abusive language and behaviour and to stop not attending school.

The conditions of the contract meant that those involved would meet frequently to check on the progress of the individual and any problems which have occurred. The contract could last for up to six months. The ABC contract was aimed at children from eight to sixteen years old and who were believed to be able to tackle pre-criminal behaviour. Families were informed that a break in the contract could result in them being evicted from their neighbourhood (HSPRC 2004).

Youth offending relies on a close relationship between the criminal justice system and Social Services. If a young person is issued with an ASBO then it should make it easier for police to refer them to social services and then to the YOT if necessary.

Many of the ABC cases were diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or associated behavioural or educational problems. Majority were excluded or not attending school and were not receiving sufficient support or part time education. They frequently complained of boredom. The contract seemed to be an ideal proposal to help the growing number of youth offenders. However, there was later evidence which suggested that the ABC contracts appeared to be a ‘quick fix’ solution. Soon after the period of the contract had expired, the individual resumed anti social behaviour (HSPRC 2004). However, by working interprofessionally with the police and social workers this would help to increase the effectiveness of the contract. The police would be able to being their knowledge of the criminal justice area and the social worker their expertise on social circumstances and how to overcome any social boundaries. For example, the social exclusion the young person may feel as a result of being labelled.

Labelling theorists such as Becker and Lemert (1960) suggest that labelling young people can have negative consequences. The label may become a master status which also has a number of consequences. First, it may produce a self-fulfilling prophecy. The labelled youth may see themselves as a ‘criminal’ and be forced into a life of crime.

Second, the labelled individual may seek comfort, sympathy and normality within a subculture of similarly labelled people. Within this subculture ‘criminal behaviour’ is interpreted as ‘normal’. Such subcultures are usually cohesive and come complete with their own values and rules which may conflict with conventional society (Chapman 2001: 135-140). Opponents of ABCs considered this and agreed that the stigma attached to being issued with an ABC would be counter-productive and instead of growing them out of their delinquency, they would be labelled, which would reinforce their behaviour (HSPRC 2004).

It was suggested instead that youths need support and encouragement to become law abiding. Being detained even for a short time could result in them being labelled as criminals. In addition these young people might associate with more hardened criminals. Therefore it has been argued that to look at the cause of why young people offend could be more beneficial to them and society. By intervening earlier rather than breaking a link would be an alternative set up. This would then protect public funds and decrease the number of youths offending (Rutherford: 1992: 48). As mentioned earlier, social services may have had contact with many young youths who may be more susceptible to become involved in criminal activities, and if these people can be identified early, the intervention may be more beneficial and productive.

In 1991 the Morgan report ‘Safer Communities Unites’ was published. In this it was suggested that “Most young people grow out of delinquency as they grow up”. However the 1996 Audit Commission suggested that, “Young males are not growing out of offending as they used to” (Audit Commission 1996: 12). Farrington (1994) argued that interventions had to be made at an earlier point. For the individuals who may have passed the early intervention stage an ABC may be an option amongst other short-term initiatives, but for the young people who have not, early intervention should be paramount (Pg.23). Also research looking into the reasons for this may help to explain this change and suggest effective interventions that could be made by both the criminal justice system and social services.

A white paper was introduced called ‘No More Excuses’ which showed that something had to be done. This showed the shift in New Labours approach towards young offenders. It preceded its flagship legislation, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998. Jack Straw suggested that “Today’s young offenders could be tomorrow’s hardened criminals”. New Labour believed that “An excuse culture has developed within the youth justice system. It excuses itself for its inefficiency, and too often excuses the young offenders before it, implying they cannot help their behaviour because of their social circumstances”.

New Labour wanted the white paper to ‘seek to draw a line under the past and set out a new approach to tackling youth crime’ (Home Office 1997b: 2). The social circumstances of an individual young offender are very important in establishing the reasons for their criminal behaviour. Of course it may be at times used as a scapegoat for the young offender, it is still important to at least acknowledge that this young person may have been living in poverty or been homeless. To not acknowledge this is to totally excuse how much of an impact this can have on a young person’s life. This is where a social worker intervenes for the welfare of the young person.

The issue of youth offending is not a recent development. In the 1950s and 1960s there was an increasing dissatisfaction with the success of the Youth Justice System. Not only were the general public worried at the lawlessness but the rowdiness and harassment assaults were not stopped. Of the poorer communities, only three per cent of anti-social cases were dealt with in court.

The election of a conservative government back into power in 1970 set the stage for a more punitive, justice-based approach towards young offenders. Through-out the 1970s and 1980s a counter-initiative was developed to divert large numbers from both custody and the criminal justice system altogether. Innovative attempts by social work practitioners successfully influenced police and court responses towards young offenders. They decided that an inter-agency diversion panel would be set-up to decide whether young persons arrested by the police could be cautioned rather than prosecuted. This relates back to what was mentioned earlier about the now frustration of youths being cautioned three or four times. They also decided that credible alternative sentences should be proposed by pre-sentence report writers for young persons at serious risk of custody (Hughes and Lewis 1998: 65-70). This shows that it is more advantageous for social work to be involved in criminal justice policies for young offenders, rather than being controlled and dictated to by legislation. This proves social work should not just be seen as a caring profession, but also as a profession which can bring insight, knowledge, expertise and a wide spectrum of valuable experience to policies, based on young offenders.

These diversionary tactics were based on the belief that youth rather than criminality was the problem and that, with support and encouragement the person would grow out of crime. However, based on labelling theory and radical non-intervention, is a means of identifying those young persons who demonstrate more serious delinquent tendencies – for which more formal intervention is required.

The youth justice provisions contained in the Crime and Disorder Act have received a mixed reception, as the punitive nature of some of the new measures certainly raised questions about the extent to which work of Youth Offending Teams amounts to social work (Davies 2002: 265). But it can also be seen that without social workers being involved in YOTs, then there would be more custodial sentences, and young offenders may not be represented as they should be. There would be more control rather than care, which can have a detrimental impact on the young offender.

Brayne and Carr (2003) argue that the majority of people under criminal investigation are vulnerable and need help and care. They suggest that as social workers are trained to work with vulnerable people they should therefore be involved in criminal justice policies for them. The damage which is inflicted on a young person mentally and physically can be detrimental. They recommend that when a young person is convicted their circumstances must not be over-looked. If they are convicted, special care should be taken over their custodial sentencing and they should be supported through-out the whole process. This is where social work has an important role, which will not only look at the criminal aspect of the young offender, but also take into account their welfare (Pg.61).

Thompson (2000) suggests that social work services are an essential part of the criminal justice system, especially youth justice. Social workers bring a different perspective to the criminal justice system by looking at the criminal’s social and personal problems. This can be combined with the narrower perspective of the judges and police demonstrating the need for a multi-disciplinary team to work with offenders (Pg.32).

The skills a social worker acquires are helpful for working with young offenders. These include patience, good listening skills and an ability to look at the offender’s background and the challenges they may have had to face. A social worker works to empower the service user and to help them arrange and maintain their lives.

On the Home Office website, the issue of youth justice is discussed. They attempt to evaluate what would be the best strategy for the growing crime problem. They suggested four essential points to meet their strategy. They want to help offenders and their parents or legal guardians to ‘face up’ to and take responsibility for their offending. They also want to take earlier and more successful interventions when young people first offend and to have faster, more efficient procedures from arrest to sentencing. Lastly, they want to ensure a partnership is built and maintained between all youth justice agencies, so a more effective and faster system and procedure can be delivered.

The emphasis they are placing on parental responsibility should not be overlooked. In the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, a parenting file was issued to help reinforce and support parental roles. This can also be used in combination with an ASBO or a Child Safety Order. For example Albert Cohen believed ‘parents fail to equip their children with the right skills required for success in education’ which is why they turn to juvenile crime (Chapman 2001: 147). Social workers are experienced in all aspects of family life. They are trained to not only work with the young offender, but also with family members involved.

Schools must also become involved to prevent truancy amongst pupils, as many crimes and anti-social behaviour are committed during school hours. There are new programs being set-up during school hours and inside schools, which discourage truancy and also act as a place where a pupil can go and discuss their problems and issues. For example, Connexions was set-up in schools, where children have someone trained to deal with their worries and stresses. Also Neighbourhood Renewal, which is a community based programme designed to help tackle the gap between the poor and affluent neighbourhoods.

It is clear that all teams from statutory and voluntary agencies must be involved to fight crime. Young children are affected in all areas of their lives, and they need the encouragement and support not to go onto crime. Evidence shows that children aged two or three years old with behavioural disorders can have serious problems in adolescence. Therefore the role psychologists and family therapists are as important as the role of police officers and social workers.

The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 suggests that local authorities, social services, probation committees, chief officers of police, police authorities and health authorities, must deliver Youth Justice Services in partnership with Youth Offending Teams. There should be an interprofessional team to decide on criminal justice policies for young offenders, and social work should be the main force implementing them. This would be because of the wide spectrum of knowledge and experience.

An argument against social workers being involved with young offenders is that it is the job for probation officers. However, the role of the probation officer is to ‘advise, assist and befriend’ offenders (Goldson 2000:56). They speak on behalf of them in court and persuade the judiciary not to inflict custodial sentences. Therefore, opposing to prison and evidently punishment. A court social worker must balance differing care and control (Care Vs Control). They must do this by exploring the caseload and psychological needs and difficulties of the service user. A social worker is able to take on both roles for the young offender, of care and control. Social workers have experience and knowledge to be able to assist in legislation for young offenders, by taking both sides of an argument.

According to Goldson (2000), the British Criminal Justice System is the best in the world. It is not flawless but comes as close to producing fair and equal justice. A youth showing criminal or anti social behaviour, on a regular basis cautioned time again will not learn to rehabilitate. On the other hand, Rutherford (1992) believes youths who are detained for a custodial sentence learn punishment for criminal behaviour and get to reflect on their actions. Although, Davies (2002) believes youths who are detained for a custodial sentence may become involved in crime soon after their release and can learn more professional criminal behaviour from more ‘hardcore’ offenders in prison.

It is helpful for a social worker to be involved at the early stages of their offensive behaviour. Children growing up in families that are abusive either towards the children or other parent or both often result in criminal behaviour, alongside children with low education levels or from poor backgrounds. Also, children who have experienced oppression or discrimination can grow up to feel worthless and believe that a life of crime is all they will succeed in.

Jock Young and John Lea (1993) argue that working-class and black youth turn to crime because of relative deprivation. In comparison with their peers, they feel deprived in terms of education, jobs, income, standard of living, etc. moreover, they feel they have little power to change their situation. They may feel they are not heard. They overall may feel marginalised (Chapman 2001: 147).

It is a social workers job to empower their client group. If the above theorists are correct and youths are feeling like this, social workers can build up a relationship and rapport and trust with these youths, as it may be hard for them to trust other professions, such as the police, government, courts and most importantly institutions who do not take into account their social circumstances.

In the nineteenth century a number of social welfare initiatives were introduced which included the establishment of new social work agencies (Davies 2002:259). The foundation was therefore laid. Social problems relating to young offenders were gaining recognition and social work was the main force qualified in helping and correcting these problems.

Although on the other hand, in the second half of the nineteenth century criminal justice policy was highly punitive, emphasizing retribution and deterrence. Imprisonment became the standard punishment. The welfare of the offender – in common with the welfare of the poor, the aged, the sick and the unemployed – was specified as outside the domain of the state, and therefore a matter for the ‘private agencies of moralization’ in the field of charitable practice (Goldson 2000: 108). Although everyday life has not become easier with poverty, homelessness, drug and alcohol addictions and welfare, crime statistics was considerably lower when social work was more involved with young offenders. Social workers are also trained to deal with these social circumstances which may have contributed to a rise in crime.


Audit Commission. Misspent Youth: Young People and Crime. London: Audit Commission, 1996.

Brayne, H., and Carr, H. Law for Social Workers. 8th edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Baldock, J. et all. Social Policy. 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

CAIPE. (1997). Interprofessional Education – A Definition. London: CAIPE.

Davies, M. Companion to Social Work. 2nd edn. London: Blackwell, 2002.

Fernando, S. (2001). Mental Health in a Multi-ethnic Society – A Multi-disciplinary Handbook. London: Routledge.

Goldson, B (ed.). The New Youth Justice. Lyme Regis: Russell House, 2000.

Rutherford, A. Growing Out of Crime. 2nd edn. Winchester: Waterside Press, 1992.

(1997b), No More Excuses: A New Approach to Tackling Youth Crime in England and Wales. London: Home Office.


I'm Niki!

Would you like to get a custom essay? How about receiving a customized one?

Check it out