There is little recently published qualitative research on the workings of and engagement within youth courts. The importance of gathering qualitative data matters because it helps us to understand youth sentence explanations, it informs judicial training and provides an understanding of court culture changes over time.
Most studies date back to the late 1970s and early 1980s and hint at marginal judicial participation. This small pilot project, funded by the Socio-Legal Studies Association (SLSA) has qualitatively investigated the sentencing explanations from those who produce them, i.e.) Magistrates. Such sentencing explanations and the way they are communicated matter, because they can promote offender understanding of the sentence and help to prevent future re-offending. Furthermore, they form part of the statutory duty to give reasons for and explain the effect of a sentence passed in Court.
This research has considered the expression of sentencing explanations through face to face and telephone interviews with 16 youth court Magistrates across Southern England. Indicative shared judicial perceptions (norms) regarding their sentencing explanation experiences in court were provided. The results have been briefly summarised as:
1) The source(s) which inform sentence explanations. Youth offender, parents/guardians, and Youth Offending Teams mattered most for all 16 Magistrates as they regularly engaged with young offenders.
2) The influence of other court room actors. Those who regularly engaged (see 1 above) with the young offender and could further explain the sentence mattered most for all 16 Magistrates.
3) The extent of judicial perceived participation and engagement with young offenders including the recidivist impact. This was predominantly judicially perceived as very high, but with moderate recidivism declining with higher seriousness offences. The key seriousness principles were offender culpability and offence harm, (Sentencing Council, 2004: 3). Youth Offender Team support was predominantly viewed as crucial to explaining the meaning of seriousness principles to the youth offender.
4) The predominant mode of expression (positive to negative). The informal youth setting helped to provide a detailed hearing predominantly focussed upon positive sentencing expressions that promoted youth understanding and sought any necessary support/treatment.
5) The detailed reasoning behind sentence explanations beyond what we currently know. We currently know that this reasoning involves sentencing explanations that focus upon human behaviours, language simplification and moral education. Beyond this, family/care giver support dynamics, countering peer group pressures, understanding religious and cultural differences and influencing the young offenders’ personality via empathy examples of offence harm, mattered most when addressing their specific welfare needs. Parenting Orders also mattered as they provided positive enforcement to consensual parenting contracts.
To conclude as a pilot study provided key insights regarding how sentencing explanations are applied and why they matter. Youth offenders benefit from Magistrates who have extensive youth sentencing experience and training. These judges can provide valuable empathy examples that explain seriousness principles to the youth offender. Youth Court Magistrates perceive that they are significantly engaging with young offenders. However, they do recognise the limits of their sentencing explanations upon youth recidivism, particularly as offence seriousness increases and where re-offending has become persistent. YOT and family care givers appear to be very important and positive influencers upon youth offenders, which the youth judiciary can utilise beyond the court to support their chosen sentence. The ultimate goal is that youth offenders fully engage with and properly understand their sentence, as they attempt to rehabilitate themselves.
- Allen, C. Crow, I. and Cavadino, M. (2000) Evaluation of the Youth Court Demonstration Project. Home Office Research Study 214. London, Home Office.
- Home Office (2001) The Youth Court. The Changing Culture of the Youth Court. Good Practice Guide. London, Lord Chancellor’s Department.
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- Lowenstein, M. (2015) Exploring Sentencing Practice in England and Wales. Chapter 14 – ‘Sentencing Young Offenders’. Palgrave Macmillan. Roberts. J. (ed.) Oxford Criminology Centre, Oxford University.
- Sentencing Council. (2004). Overarching Principles: Seriousness. Available online at: https://www.sentencingcouncil.org.uk/wpcontent/uploads/web_seriousness_guideline.pdf [accessed April 2016]
- Weijers, I. (2004) Requirements for Communication in the Courtroom: A Comparative Perspective on the Youth Court in England/Wales and The Netherlands. Youth Justice, 4(1) 22-31.