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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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Friday 19 February 2010

Association of Panel Members

From 1909 until 2001, the primary role for community participation in the youth justice system has been as volunteer magistrates delivering summary justice to young people, with the ultimate sanction of imprisonment to teach lessons which - somehow- prevent their future offending. Youth Offending Panels are now in their 10th year of operating through directly engaging community volunteers in the rehabilitation of young people pleading guilty to behaviour which cross the boundaries of criminality, through Referral Orders delivering restorative justice.

The revised system, designed to deliver support services at one-stop-shops provided by newly-configured Youth Offending Teams, was greeted with euphoria and led to description of Panels by the then Youth Justice Board Chair, Rod Morgan, as the jewel in the crown. Yet the criminal justice floodgate was opened to children aged from 11, with the decade depicted as a crime-wave committed by ‘feral’ teenagers, and Panels confined to the backwaters as a ‘soft’ or superfluous diversion from jails accommodating up to 3000 under-18’s, to receive their just desserts.

Whilst conventional wisdom attributes children’s crime to moral deficits, easily remedied by the short, sharp shock of being ‘sent-down’, Community Panel Members recognise that behind the court orders lie stories of disastrous role models, unfulfilled potential, and institutional failures - only to be compounded through incarceration. We seek to challenge these children’s behaviour by ensuring that victims become the jury and amends are made; by agreeing contracts to engage support services to ensure that contextual factors which led to the crime are addressed. Yet despite an alarming reoffending rate for custodial sentences (75%) the community justice epitomized in Panel Members faces a constant challenge to increase magistrates’ confidence in community sentences - perceived as only applicable to trivial crimes, despite the lowest reoffending rate of all community sentences (45%).

This topsy-turvy position has finally been highlighted in recent excellent work by penal reformers, with sentencers’ confidence in custody being questioned by policy makers at all levels. Not least all 4 Children’s Commissioners, responsible for upholding the Human Rights of children in the United Kingdom. The economics of incarcerating young people (£325m) when weighed against an average 75% risk of re-offending upon release, simply don’t make sense.

At the community level, the Association of Panel Members (AOPM) has become an apologist for Restorative Youth Justice. With few resources other than the goodwill of volunteers, we beat the drum in favour of victim participation in solutions to the harm caused by young people in our communities; in favour of interventions targeted towards the social, emotional and behavioural deficits which disproportionately affect these children. And we are very reluctant witnesses to the sheer numbers of young people left behind by the education system, only to resurface in the custody suite.

Panel Members understand the ability of young people to come good in time with patient, affirming (but not condoning) adult support, as opposed to condemnation. We want to celebrate the sheer guts and determination it takes for young people, who went off the rails, to get back on track working with YOTs in partnership with members of their community. As volunteers, Panel Members are disinterested, dispassionate and freethinking participants in the complex process of corporate parenting, who know that our role is challenging to entrenched traditions. We are therefore a wild card in the pack, which sometimes renders our partnerships unstable. By keeping sight of the goal, we help children to move away from the so-called revolving door, by delivering the urban equivalent of the African saying; ‘It takes a whole village to raise a child.’

Baroness Neuberger’s 2009 review of volunteering in the criminal justice system provides the last word:
"A lack of investment in volunteer management inevitably results in volunteers having a bad experience. During the course of my research I have come across many cases of volunteers who have had a negative experience, as a direct result of poor investment in their management. This is more common where a statutory volunteer role is new, for instance in the case of panel members on Youth Offending Teams. The agency is still adapting to these changes and a supportive culture is still being developed. The Youth Justice Board has worked on a number of initiatives to support best practice in managing volunteers. Nevertheless, Government should be taking this very seriously if they wish Panel Members to stay and play a key role."

Sandra Beeton
Association of Panel Members (AOPM)

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