SCYJ Comment: ‘A Smarter Approach to Sentencing’ White Paper

Commenting on the publication of yesterday’s (16 September) Sentencing White Paper by the Ministry of Justice, Pippa Goodfellow (Director of the SCYJ) and Hannah Smithson (Chair of the SCYJ), comment:

The Sentencing White Paper proposes what can only be described as a ‘mixed bag’ of reforms for the youth justice system. The Rt Hon Robert Buckland’s message was clear, tougher sentences for the most serious offences, including a number of punitive measures for children and young adults. In his announcement of the proposals, Buckland emphasised the need for a radical approach and spoke much about public protection and a more balanced approach to ‘smarter sentencing’. A radical overhaul is certainly needed, but the headline-grabbing punitive measures are deeply depressing and disappointing steps backwards for youth justice.

Some of what is laid out in the White Paper is cause for optimism, a stated focus on rehabilitation through the use of more community sentences; increasing the threshold for imposing remand to custody; and a focus on early intervention, prevention and diversion. We were struck by a lack of detail of how these foci will be developed, or how they will play out against a backdrop of limited financial resource. Of particularly significant concern is the lack of detail of how racial disparity at each stage of the justice system will be tackled – recognising the need to improve the situation is not the same as taking immediate action.

We welcome the planned reforms to the criminal records system through the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, in addition to the recent proposals to change the rules governing disclosure for sensitive roles. However, we are clear that these tweaks of the system will not go far enough. A widespread review of the childhood criminal records system is long overdue, to allow young people to move on from past mistakes and reach their full potential.

Overall, these reforms pay little attention to the underlying causes of crime, summed up by Robert Buckland’s assertion that “to commit a crime is a choice”. Positive, long-term outcomes for young people will not be achieved through a focus on incarceration, supervision and surveillance. SCYJ members have a wealth of experience working with children and young people in the community and are keen to engage in discussions about how to shape the future approach to community justice.

Radical solutions need to be developed with and for children, young people and the organisations supporting them, to make our communities safer and bring about lasting change.