17 years old but they’re still children

It’s unusual for me to be suggesting that young people should be treated like children. My youth work practice is normally built around advocating for and giving greater responsibility to young people, on enabling participation in decision-making and empowering young people to take control of their lives.

BUT now I’m celebrating the fact that young people aged 17 will be treated as children – at least by the police. This week a small amendment was made to a larger Criminal Justice Bill in parliament that meant no longer will 17 year olds be held overnight in police cells (but transferred to Local Authority accommodation) and it follows previous changes ensuring the right to an appropriate adult and for a parent/carer to be notified.

For any of us who have visited or been in a (strangely named) police ‘custody suite’ will recognise this is not a good place for children and whilst most other laws fail to recognise the rights of young people under 18 it was an anomaly to treat them differently at a time when they are most vulnerable. Sadly the concession was won at the cost of 3 young people aged 17 who died in the last 3 years either in custody or as a direct result of being held in police cells.

England and Wales has the highest rate of child imprisonment in Western Europe and the lowest age of criminal responsibility. At 10 years old, a child can be arrested and labelled a criminal for the rest of his/her life – 3 children aged 10-11 are arrested every day; They’re still at primary school so surely no doubt that they are still children. The vast majority of young people in the criminal justice system are not the thugs or ‘feral’ out of control young people as the tabloid press would like us to believe; many suffer multiple disadvantage, are neglected or abused, have mental health difficulties or additional educational needs – often having been excluded from school.


My work with ‘juvenile offenders’ in the past and with other young people who would be deemed to be ‘at risk’ of offending proved to me that these statements are not academic but rooted in real life stories of young people struggling to grow up in difficult circumstances. Occasionally I would meet a young person for whom crime had become an entrenched pattern of behaviour but most of the time these young people needed support and diversionary activities. The last thing they needed was to be locked up. Re-offending rates for those coming out of prison remains high (over 70%) and so it’s purpose can be justified only in terms of punishment and protection for the public for the time they are away. It does not address the underlying causes nor reduce long-term offending behaviour.

In the early 90’s the project I worked with offered pre-court diversion, reparation and community-based resolutions that meant offenders had to face the consequences of their behaviour and seek to repair the damage done to relationships and communities. It was an approach that was proven to work with 90% of young people. Yet, it was a programme that was cut in favour of more punitive approaches and because the actions of the 10% created more headlines.

It’s time we stopped demonising young people and time we started seeing them all as children, even when they get things wrong,  including the 17 year olds.


*statistics quoted are from the Howard League – http://www.howardleague.org/

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