‘Flog young offenders, put them in stocks and pelt them with oranges.’

By Matt van Poortvliet 23 February 2010

‘Flog young offenders, put them in stocks and pelt them with oranges.’ This is a response from a member of the public to a recent government consultation on how to punish young offenders.

Although responses like this do not seem to be very constructive, the consultation itself is a good idea. At present the public has a limited understanding of the youth justice system, and efforts to engage people in what happens to young offenders is positive. The public tend to assume that sentences are ‘softer’ than they really are. Research shows that when they know more about how the system works, what different sentences involve and the lives of individual offenders, they favour more constructive and less punitive approaches.

But if government is looking for new ideas on how to address youth crime in local areas, as well as asking the public, it could also take a closer look at what charities are doing.

NPC’s forthcoming research on charities working with young offenders (out Wednesday)highlights a number of innovative schemes that deserve proper attention. It shows that projects involving dance, boxing and vehicle maintenance are effective at engaging young people and diverting them from crime. When we spoke to 16-year-old Michael (on a community sentence for drug offences), he pointed out that the conventional punishments that he had received actually made him worse—they simply helped him mix with other offenders and return to a life of crime. To his surprise, what worked was an intensive dance course run by the charity Dance United—it provided discipline, support and a route out of offending. He is now married and in full-time employment.

Our report Trial and error shows that the things we tend to think of as ‘tough’ generally do not work well. Three in four young people leaving prison re-offend within a year of release; ‘Scared straight’ programmes—taking delinquent young people into prisons to ‘scare them straight’—actually increase offending; military-style boot camps do nothing to reduce criminality. What works are schemes that set firm boundaries but also provide support and alternatives to offending. But given the ‘stock’ opinions and risk-averse culture towards offenders, without stronger evidence it will be difficult to convince policymakers, magistrates and orange pelters of the effective alternatives provided by charities. Our report Trial and error urges charities to evaluate their schemes and funders to support them to do this.