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By drawing explicitly on research and academic analysis, assess critically the legitimacy and impact of New Labour’s approaches to youth justice during the period 1997-2010.


The New Labour government came into power in 1997, under Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose manifesto had focused on the issues of rising youth crime and anti-social behavior and the inability of the youth justice system to cope with the same (Jerrom, 2005; Blair, 2005). When in power, the Labour government put the youth justice system through a huge transformation. Specific and important aspects of this transformation include reparation orders, the abolition of doli incapax, Child Curfew Schemes, Parenting Orders, Youth Offending Teams, Youth Justice Board, etc. These policies have been subjected to criticism in context of the need for their implementation and impacts. This essay will analyse four New Labour policies related to youth justice system that were introduced between 1997 and 2010. This essay will critically analyse the justifications and the impacts of these policies, which are the Youth Justice Board, Youth Offending Teams (YOTs), Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOS), and the abolition of doli incapax. There are other important changes that have been made in the form of: referral orders under the Youth Justice and the Criminal Evidence Act 1999; penalising of parents for their wards not attending school under the Criminal Justice and the Court Services Act 2000; child curfew schemes under the Criminal Justice and the Police Act 2001, to mention a few. However, the space of this essay will not be adequate to address all of these changes. Therefore, the essay will be limited to the four areas that were mentioned earlier.


On the 1st of May, 1997, New Labour entered office, under the leadership of Tony Blair, with a parliamentary majority of 179 (Coates and Lawler, 2000, p. 1). New Labour had a clear mandate on criminal justice policy, and they pledged to be “tough on crime, tough on the underlying causes of crime”(Blair, 2017). While the first part of this pledge is easier, the second part, which relates to underlying causes of crime, is decidedly complex. That would involve delving into the socio-economic factors that may be involved as the underlying causes of crime. Some scholars have criticised the starting point of the New Labour youth crime policy, as encapsulated in the slogan above, as something invented for its sound-byte value (Smith, 2007, p.42). At the same time, it is also noteworthy that the New Labour government did attempt to create a more comprehensive system for responding to youth crime, which took into account relevant factors such as inadequate parenting, drug and alcohol abuse, and unstable living conditions (Smith, 2007, p.43).

One of New Labour’s main priorities was the development of its youth justice policy through legislation (Jones, 2001, p. 14), leading to significant transformation of the Youth Justice system (Whitehead and Arthur, 2011, p. 469). New Labour government issued various white and green papers, action plans, and legislation (Souhami, 2015, p. 153). The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 was a major enactment that would epitomise New Labour, and it is that act that the policies discussed in this essay are borne out of (Goldson, 2000, p. 6).

Prior to addressing the four policies introduced by the New Labour government, it is important to understand that one of the primary motivations for the introduction of these policies was to expand the youth justice apparatus so that eventually, a wider population of children and youth offenders would be included in the youth justice system (Goldson and Coles, 2005). Net widening was aided by the inclusion of policies, such as those discussed in this essay, which led to the broad application of interventions tilted towards the ‘unruly’, ‘disorderly’, and potential offenders, amongst the child and youth population. In a way, the intervention mechanism is pre-emptive, meaning that guilt of the child or youth offender is not the criterion for the intervention. It is the risk factor that determines the need for intervention (Goldson and Coles, 2005). Thus, despite its attempts to create an integrated strategy, New Labour policies are also subjected to criticism.


A significant policy borne out of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 is related to the establishment Youth Justice Board (YJB) (Souhami, 2015, p. 155). The YJB was to be a single body, dedicated solely to youth justice ensuring that youth justice matters would be dealt with separately from adult criminal justice matters (Souhami, 2015, p. 155). In order to achieve this, the YJB was established as a non-departmental public body, which meant it was outside existing government departments (Souhami, 2015, p. 155). The YJB comprises of a board of public figures and senior justice system experts, and is headed by a chair (Goldson, 2000, p. 6). The chair (currently Charlie Taylor) is accountable to the Home Secretary, whom they advise on the operation and the setting of national standards for the youth justice system (Goldson, 2000, p. 7; Muncie, 2009, p. 300; Souhami, 2015, p. 155). The YJB were given a number of responsibilities, including overseeing all aspects of the performance of the youth justice system so as to ensure that the set standards were met; commissioning and purchasing places in custodial and secure facilities for individuals under the age of 18; allocating young offenders to such facilities (since April 2000); and identifying and promoting ‘effective practice’ (Bottoms and Dignan, 2004, p. 78). Per the New Labour government, the duties of the YJB had to be carried out within a culture of responsibility, as opposed to a culture of excuses that had been operating before it came into power (Goldson and Muncie, 2015, p. 84). The YJB introduced fast track punishment, which cut in half the time between sentencing and arrest of young offenders (Muncie, 2009, p. 300). It also developed early intervention strategies such as referral orders and Parenting Orders (Smith, 2003, p. 34).

Tony Blair’s justification for the introduction of the YJB was that “youth crime and disorder have risen sharply,” while youth offenders, when caught, were often let off with a warning (Jerrom, 2005). Blair further asserted that the existing system failed to tackle the scale of youth crime, and allowed too long a gap between arrest and trial which sent the wrong message that government was lackadaisical about youth crime (Souhami, 2011, p. 8). In other words, the system was inefficient, inactive, and inconsistent with variations in the outcome of services across the country (Souhami, 2011, p. 8). There was a lack of a department solely responsible for youth crime, which resulted in tension between the ‘criminal justice’ approach toward young offenders adopted by the Home Office, and the ‘welfare’ approach adopted by the Department of Health (Souhami, 2011, p. 8). However, scholars have critiqued New Labour’s justifications. Goldson (2010, p. 161) asserts that youth crime rates are not increasing, rather, data shows that over time, the statistics are relatively stable and it could also be said that youth crime rates overall are on a downward trajectory. Therefore, the justification of responding to rising youth crime, which would justify the establishment of the YJB, has been questioned by some.


The New Labour government introduced youth offending teams (YOTs) in the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act (Whitehead and Arthur, 2011, p. 469- 470). YOTs were designed to intervene, directly, in the anti-social, criminal and disorderly behaviour of young offenders. YOTs replaced youth justice teams (Muncie, 2009, p. 300). YOTs are required to work together to co-ordinate provision and to deliver programmes and interventions that ensure that “young people face up to the consequences of their crimes and learn to change the habits and attitudes which led them into offending and anti-social behaviour” (Goldson, 2000, p. 30). YOTs have varies duties, including bail support, supplying appropriate adults where needed, co-ordinating youth justice services for all those in the area who are in need of them, and delivering programmes to accompany formal warnings (Watkins and Stanley, 2009, p. 57). YOTs are required to operate within targets and guidelines that are set by the YJB, who would also audit, and on occasion, formally inspect YOTs (Pitts, 2001, p. 46). YOTs are also required to produce a youth offending plan in which they are required to specify how each YOT would be organised, disperse its functions, and work with other bodies. This plan is submitted to a National Youth Justice Board for approval (Pitts, 2001, p. 46). YOTs are responsible for the practical local delivery of youth justice services (Watkins and Stanley, 2009, p. 56). This includes interventions that may require dealing with parents, and providing career advice to the youth offenders (Goldson, 2000, p. 30).

New Labour government justified the introduction of YOTs by asserting that in order to deal effectively with young offenders, different agencies were required to pool their skills and co-operate at a local level (Home Office, 1997). However, scholars have criticised this, arguing that there are issues in using multidisciplinary teams, including the difficulty in bringing together different social agencies that have different policies, practices, philosophies, priorities, histories, agendas and responsibilities (Jackson, 1999, p. 142; Harvey, 2000, p. 141).


The New Labour government introduced Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs). These were introduced by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, and were among the measures aimed at tackling anti-social behaviour (Solomon et al, 2007, p. 44). The ASBO was originally introduced as a civil order, and was put in place with the aim of protecting society from acts of anti-social behaviour that cause, or are likely to cause ‘harassment, alarm, or distress’ (Donoghue, 2010, p. 16).

The Police Reform Act 2002, the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003, the ‘Together Campaign’ in 2003, and the ‘Respect Action Plan’ in 2006 have all reinforced New Labour’s commitment to tackling acts of anti-social behaviour (Solmon et al, 2007, p. 44).

Applications for ASBOs must be made by either, the police, local government authorities, registered social landlords, or housing action trusts (Donoghue, 2010, p. 17). The application agency must demonstrate that the defendant has behaved in an anti- social manner, and that an ASBO is necessary for protecting members of the public from further anti-social behaviour by the defendant (Donoghue, 2010, p. 17). The official definition offered for anti-social behaviour in relation to ASBOs is offered by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 as behaving “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 himself” (Solomon et al, 2007, p. 44). A broad range of criminal and non-criminal behaviour fall within this, and the official guidance on what constitutes anti-social behaviour includes verbal abuse, criminal damage, littering, hoax calls, etc. (Simpson, 2009, p. 232; Donoghue, 2010, pp. 20-21).

ASBOs may be issued to anyone over the age of ten (Simpson, 2009, p. 231). ASBO proceedings can be dealt with by magistrates, the crown, or youth or county courts (Donoghue, 2010, p. 17). Once granted, an ASBO is in effect for a minimum of two years, and contains conditions which prohibit the defendant from participating in certain acts, or going to certain areas (Donoghue, 2010, p. 17). Originally ASBOs only had force within a local government’s jurisdiction, however, now these apply throughout England and Wales (Simpson, 2009, p. 231). Violation of ASBO is a criminal offence (Simpson, 2009, p. 231). For those who violate an ASBO and are over the age of 17, penalty can include imprisonment for up to five years (Simpson, 2009, p. 231). For those who violate an ASBO and are between the age of 12 and 17, the punishment can be a detention and training order (Simpson, 2009, p. 231). For those aged between 10 and 11, the punishment can be performing community service (Simpson, 2009, p. 231).

Tony Blair’s justification for the introduction of ASBOs was anti-social behaviour was a serious problem, and the courts were unable to sufficiently deal with the random acts of violence and low levels of disorder (Blair, 2005). Blair (2005) further argued that, in order to sufficiently deal with anti-social behaviour, the police and local authorities needed new powers. However, scholars have criticised New Labour’s justifications. Tonry (2004) asserts that New Labour ‘invented’ the concept of anti-social behavior and it was nothing more than just a part of their politics on crime and disorder.

ASBOs can be criticised because youth crime is not as widespread as New Labour government stressed it was and therefore, the justification for the ASBOs is not there (Goldson, 2010, p. 160). Another criticism against the ASBOs is the giving of additional powers to the police and that the ASBOs can be distributed unfairly (Ashworth et al, 1998 in Goldson, 2010, p. 19)

Concerns have also been raised about the disproportionate use of ASBOs against ethnic minorities (Mathews, Easton, and Briggs, 2007, p. 3). A study conducted by Young et al (2006) revealed that 37% of the ASBOs issued in the London Borough of Camden were given to African Caribbean males, although only 8% of the population of Camden are Afro Caribbean.


Section 34 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 abolished the presumption of doli incapax, which was applied to children aged between 10 and 13 (Gillen, 2006, p. 131). Before this policy was implemented, children between 10 and 13 were presumed doli incapax, that is, ‘incapable of committing an evil act’ (Fitz-Gibbon, 2016, p. 398-399); or in other words, incapable of committing a crime (Bandalli, 1998, p. 114). Before its abolition, when proceeding against a child aged between 10 to 13, doli incapax required the prosecution to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant understood that what they were doing was “‘seriously wrong’ as opposed to being “merely naughty of mischievous” (Fitz-Gibbon, 2016, p. 399). To prove the former, evidence offered by the prosecution could include what the child said or did before committing the act, and also information about the child’s home background (Bandalli, 1998, p. 114). Originally introduced to protect children from the full rigour of the law, doli incapax acted as a safeguard within criminal law for children above the age of criminal responsibility (i.e ten) and below the age of 14. Children in this age group were regarded as being unaware that the act they committed was wrong; and were unlikely to be able to understand the criminal justice process (Muncie, 1999, p. 153; Fitz-Gibbon, 2016, p. 399).

However, in 1998, in response to criticism by the House of Lords and New Labour, doli incapax was abolished in England and Wales by section 34 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 (Fitz-Gibbon, 2016, p. 399; Crofts, 2016, p. 441). The abolition followed on from the government White Paper, No More Excuses: A New Approach to Tackling Youth Crime in England and Wales, in which the government emphasised responsibility wherein children would be held responsible for their actions (Fitz-Gibbon, 2016, p. 399).

New Labour’s justification for the abolition was that doli incapax was illogical and unfair in practice. The assumption that a child under the age of 14 is incapable of differentiating between right and wrong is contrary to common sense (Bandalli, 1998, p. 155; Goldson, 2000, p. 85). According to the New Labour government, doli incapax was standing in the way of appropriately dealing with young people who have committed an offence (Crofts, 2016, p. 441).


One impact of the New Labour’s policies is that they serve to incarcerate children and young people. The implication of the abolition of the presumption of doli incapax is that younger children are coming into the youth justice system (Gillen, 2006, p. 134). Between 1997 and 2007, the number of children aged between 10 to 14 years in custody increased by 295% (Lyon, no date). The impact of penalising the violation of ASBOs, was that it served to bring more people into the youth justice system who were detained in custody (Berman, 2009, p. 14). Figures demonstrate that between 1st June 2000 and 31st December 2007, the breach rate for juveniles was 64% (Berman, 2009, p. 14). Government statistics reveal that out of the youths who breached their ASBO, 1142 (44%) received a custodial sentence, with the average sentence being 6.5 months (Berman, 2009, p. 15). Furthermore, the YJB bring more children and young people into the youth justice system. These youths are detained in custody through the YJB’s priorities of punishment and responsibility. The YJB spends more on child imprisonment than on crime prevention strategies (Goldson, 2010, p. 170). These policies have brought children into the system, and made them the recipient of formal sanctions, for offences that would previously not have attracted such outcomes (Bateman, 2015, p. 69).

New Labour argued that the abolition of doli incapax would have a positive effect on youth crime as it would enable youths to confront their criminality at an early age would consequently lead to their reformation (Whitehead and Arthur, 2011, p. 474). By ‘confronting’ New Labour meant being brought into the youth justice system, and as this aspect materialised, figures demonstrate that between 1997 and 2007, the number of children aged between 10 to 14 years in custody increased by 295% (Lyon, no date).

A further impact of the policies is they serve to label youths (Goldson, 2010; Jones, 2001). Becker (1963) and Lemert (1967) showed that labeling has a detrimental effect on the person labelled (Goldson, 2000, pp. 162-163). Through early intervention by the YOTs, issuing ASBOs, and the incarceration of young people through measures by the YJB, young people are given the label of ‘deviant’ from an early age (Goldson, 2010, p. 163; Aizer and Doyle, 2015, p. 766). This criminogenic labeling of youths leads to them being viewed as ‘outsider’, wherein they become recipients of negative societal reactions (Goldson, 2010, p. 162). The societal reactions to their behavior leads to the deviant label being internalised by the young person. This leads to the deviant label becoming their ‘master status’ (i.e, the deviant identity becomes the primary identifying characteristic for the young person). Consequently, those labelled deviants proceed to organise their lives around the construction of their identity that conforms the label (Paternoster and Iovanni, 1989, p. 375).

The young person may begin to socialise with other deviants, withdraw from conventional pursuits, and commit further acts of deviance (Wiley, Slocum and Esbensen, 2013, p. 937). Therefore, scholars assert that incarceration lead to further deviance (Lambie and Ranall, 2013). It is also asserted that welfare-based early intervention serves to label the young person deviant (Paternoster and Iovanni, 1989; Goldson, 2010; McAra and Mcvitie, 2007; Bell et al, 1999). This can facilitate further deviant behavior, as opposed to preventing it, and results in more youths being recycled back into the youth justice system. Welfare-based early interventions can serve to discipline the child by leading them back into the criminal justice system (McAlister and Carr, 2014, p. 3).

Goldson (2010) argues that custodial sanctions are ineffective and damaging to youths. Studies have demonstrated that youth offenders are at a particularly high risk of victimisation whilst incarcerated in juvenile detention facilities (Beck, Harrison, and Guerino, 2010). The same holds true for incarceration in adult detention facilities (Tie and Waugh, 2001; Wolff, Shi, and Siegal, 2009). Victimisation may consist of verbal, physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Lambie and Randall (2013, p. 452) note that black and minority ethnic (BME) youths face more risk to victimisation whilst incarcerated. Furthermore, incarceration can have detrimental effects on young people’s mental health (Lambie and Randell, 2013, p. 453). Studies have demonstrated that a large proportion of children and young people who are incarcerated suffer from mental health problems such as depression, leading to suicidal thoughts and attempts at commission of suicide (Robertson et al, 2004; Lader, Singleton and Meltzer, 2003). This may be exacerbated by factors including exposure of youth offenders to isolation, bullying, and separation from family and friends, while they are incarcerated (Lambie and Randall, 2013, p. 453).

Moreover, the impacts of incarceration continue to impact children and young people once they have been released from prison (Lambie and Randell, 2013). The time spent in exclusion from society, paired with the deviant label they have acquired, results in the creation of a barrier to successful integration back into society (Lambie and Randall, 2013, p. 454). One of the consequences of the transition from incarceration back into normal life is an increased risk of recidividsm (Lambie and Randall, 2013, p. 454). McGuire and Priestly (1995, p. 10) assert that incarceration of youths and young people serves to worsen rates of recidivism. With evidence from the Ministry of Defense revealing that within the first year of being released from custody, 75% of young people and children offend, and within two years of being released from custody, 80% of children and young people offend, the claims of recidivism are well justified (Goldson, 2010, p. 166).

Some scholars champion minimum intervention and maximum diversion from the youth justice system (McAra and Mcvitie, 2007; Bell et al, 1999). Minimum intervention and diversion from the youth justice system is suggested to be the key to preventing early offending. Drawing upon their research into system contact involving 4300 children and young people, McAra and McVitie (2007) conclude that youths who not do face early intervention, and who receive a caution instead, are associated with “desistence from further offending” (pp. 337-338).


It can be seen that the policies discussed in this essay have served to ‘net widen’, that is, expand the penal capacity of the laws. Through the abolition of doli incapax rule, New Labour brought not only more children, but also younger children into the system. The younger children between ages 10 to 14 years was previously shielded under the doli incapax rule. The justifications that were offered by the government for the implementation of these stricter laws are not free from criticism as demonstrated in this essay. Literature and studies discussed in this essay have shown evidence that demonstrates that incarceration is harmful to youth offenders. New Labour’s justification for the implementation of the YJB was the alleged increase in the youth crime rates. However, the evidence base demonstrates that this was not the case; and that rather, youth crime figures were relatively stable. In fact, it could even be said that youth crime rates were on an overall downward trajectory. This suggests that the justification for the establishment of the YJB was faulty.


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