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The self-fulfilling prophesy that's doubled our prison population,
demonised our young and costs us billions...
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Monday, 21 June 2010

AOPM Annual Conference - Plenary

Now entering the fourth year of operations, AOPM has become the driving force supporting volunteer Panel Members to achieve a sense of national identity and shared purpose.

We represent the community practitioners of a reintegrative approach to youth offending, on the basis that it is more likely to promote mutual respect, produce a meaningful dialogue and give young people a voice.

We continue to advocate restorative approaches to children in trouble with the law through panel meetings delivering support services and community sentences where, through willing participation, victims effectively become the jury and ensure that amends are made.

As representatives of civil society in the criminal justice system, we are keen to see greater integration of resources between the voluntary, third and statutory sectors towards a different direction for children caught up in criminality, but who are the most deprived and marginalised in our communities.

In Scotland’s Children’s Hearings system community volunteers meet with young people involved in crime - without the benefit of a prior criminal record – in order to nip offending behaviour in the bud. A criminal conviction is the major drawback of Referral Orders which, although spent on completion, is revealed through CRB checks to the detriment of future employment. (In the year to September 2009 over 125,000 CRB checks were made on under 18’s).

Moreover, a discretionary ‘Custody Threshold’ has meant that many young people, who pleaded guilty to a first time offence, were sent to jail instead of receiving a Referral Order. Although statistics of such sentences are not available from the YJB, a recent Barnardo’s report revealed that 95% of children incarcerated in 2006/07 had not committed a grave or serious offence, and 82% had not committed a violent offence against another person.

We therefore welcome the new measures from the Sentencing Guidelines Council that Referral Orders up to 12 months are mandatory for first time entrants pleading guilty to low level crimes, and that a court must state reasons why a community sanction is inappropriate when a custodial sentence is imposed. We also share the newly stated aim of the National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA) to reduce criminalisation of young people, and continue to advocate that when issued alongside the Referral Order, Compensation Orders become spent on completion instead of after 30 months.

The Scottish tribunal model was adopted in Guernsey in 2009 and victims’ high involvement and satisfaction with the Northern Ireland system is in marked contrast with the present lack of involvement of victims in referral panels.

Despite the statutory basis of Panel Members’ role as practitioners of restorative justice, many of us long to see the day when the victims of young people’s crime routinely attend panel meetings, albeit inwardly apprehensive as to our ability to mediate effectively. Doubts arise from lack of RJ training and resources for volunteers, which AOPM has strived to redress since inception.

Following consultation on revised National Occupation Standards in RJ, Skills for Justice, the RJC and NPIA jointly launched the framework for a new qualification on 1st April 2010, open equally to employees and volunteers.
This represents immense progress and is a welcome commitment from government to the volunteer and third sector workforce (amounting to some 6million individuals), who service our most vulnerable young people. In addition, the YJB’s online college at the Open University is now accessible to volunteers, with easy access to learning materials for improving standards and consistency in youth offending panels.

In recent years, the increasing move away from local youth courts to a much more centralised system has meant that trial and sentencing of young people in courts can be outside their town, borough or county, whilst their schools, homes or care homes are no longer places of safety. At the same time the media-driven solution to youth crime is to remove young offenders out of sight and out of mind, leaving unaddressed their atrophied lives and collateral damage to victims and communities.

In marked contrast Panels lie at the heart of communities, enabling greater local accountability for those who commit crime in their youth, but statistically more often than not, will go on to live decent, law-abiding lives.

Neither a court of law nor a local authority committee, Panels provide local and accountable youth justice services to drive the changes so desperately needed by volatile young people, often struggling with literacy and communications deficits at a defining stage of their lives.

We look forward to a wider and increasingly effective role for Panel Members.

Sandra Beeton
June 2010

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