The Herald (UK)

Youthful Idea to Solve an Old Problem

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Beth Pearson, November 02, 2005

Peer pressure has a bad name. It’s the first port of call for anyone looking for an explanation of why young people smoke, have sex, try drugs and wear clothes that don’t suit them. That said, it’s nothing short of a remarkable failure in logic that if peer pressure can be the source of this unrelenting generation-wide destruction, it can also do a spot of good now and then.

Take one instance of such a failure: Labour’s policy on antisocial behaviour. Antisocial behaviour orders (Asbos) take young people who are already antisocial and further remove them from society. They do this for the benefit of the community without nurturing any meaningful sense of community. They are enforced by institutions typically not respected by the offender and, therefore, provide no incentive for the person to stay out of the criminal justice system and join the civil society those institutions represent.

For those of us who have reserved nothing but disdain for Asbos, there has been little to do but reiterate this whenever the opportunity arises. However, it appears an alternative may be emerging: Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrats’ leader, during a speech on Monday, suggested his party may back a “peer court” system to deal with antisocial youth. This is popular in America: youths who have committed first-time, non-violent offences are either tried or sentenced by other youths who have volunteered for court service and are guided by lawyers.

The precise form of each peer or youth court varies by community; however, most follow the “adult judge” model, in which he or she presides over a jury of youths. The youths, who receive training, can question the alleged offender before deliberation and sentencing.

This punishment may involve any combination of community service, social skills and drugs education, youth jury duty, letters of apology and restitution. This is tailored to the perceived needs of the offender. For instance, if the jurors think the offender would be less likely to re-offend if they were better integrated with the community, then the community service will involve a strong social element.

Key to the success of youth courts is that they expose young offenders to people their own age they might not mix with. That is, they discover a new peer group that disapproves of what they do. Experts call this a “pro-social” influence, as the youth court volunteers are giving their time for the good of the community (though some schemes offer “time dollars” – credit that can be redeemed for educational goods). Their aim is to include the offender in the community and thereby exclude them from the criminal justice system. Research suggests the greater the social bonds developed by an offender during their experience of the peer court, the less likely they are to re-offend.

This emphasis on socialisation for youth recidivism gives a rather different perspective on the prohibitive nature of Asbos.

Indeed, the combination of condemning the actions of the offender while offering a helping, if firm, hand could not, ideologically, be more different from the approach being taken in this country. It is restorative where Asbos are punitive; it enables offenders to engage with law-abiding people their own age; it enables law-abiding youths to speak with wayward counterparts they may otherwise have avoided; and it provides a community remedy for a community problem.

What’s more, since the offender’s peers are doing the dirty work, the government, police and legal system look less like the bad guys. Or, for that matter, the ambiguous guys – observe the Abso-enthusiast Scottish Executive yesterday launching its Young Scot Info Line with a graffiti mural while city councils are zealously trying to reward graffiti artists with their first conviction.

Nor can it be assumed that peers, classed purely by age, will guarantee an instant rapport and matching set of aspirations. Juvenile delinquency is a socio-economic matter and, as such, the socio-economic circumstances of youth juries and their offending peers may be hugely different. For this reason, a young offender may not identify with those in the age group as much as they identify with those with whom they share a cultural background, which could be criminal. Using youth jury service as part of sentencing is a way of widening the social and cultural mix, while juries comprising school peers increase associations and therefore identification (some communities use school courts for offences committed during school time).

For those not convinced by talk of wishy-washy, chummy restorative justice, perhaps the facts will be convincing. A study by the Urban Institute in America determined that 6% of youths who have gone through the youth court system re-offend, compared to 18% in conventional juvenile courts.

Their widespread adoption in America also must be seen as a measure of their effectiveness: in 1994 there were 78 youth courts, and last year’s count totalled more than 900 youth courts in 48 states and the District of Columbia. These courts can handle up to 100,000 cases a year.

It’s early days, but it looks as if Mr Kennedy might just be on to something.

Copyright 2005 Newsquest (Herald & Times) Limited