YJLC's 2023 Youth Justice Summit converged experts and practitioners whose work spans the globe and the many fields of youth justice around the theme of 'Exploring alternatives to the criminal legal system for children'. Each panel shed crucial insight into the current tensions and possibilities at the cutting-edge of youth justice and are explored in detail below. To stay up to date on forthcoming events featuring these evolving conversations, please consider following the Youth Justice Legal Centre’s newsletter.
Kids, Drugs, and Criminality
In YJLC’s first panel, each speaker deconstructed the underlying narratives justifying criminalising vulnerable people and pointed to alternative, restorative models of engaging with those affected by the criminal legal system. MiAngel Cody, a federal public defender and founder of the Decarceration Collective in Chicago, began the session by naming these underlying narratives “dominant carceral myths.” These “myths” are propagated by dominant groups to reinforce unequal power and resource relationships in society. MiAngel works to unravel those myths by contextualising individual behaviour in the web of systems that fail those who are criminalised.
André Gomes, a communications leader with Release, spoke to similar myths about both the harmfulness of drug use and what a typical drug user looks like. These myths leave young people adrift in creating safe drug practices and reinforce racist and classist ideas of problematic drug use, ultimately justifying heightened policing and greater state-inflicted trauma on young people.
Anne-Marie Cockburn, founder of Anyone’s Child, concluded the panel by sharing her experiences as the mother of a fifteen-year-old girl who died tragically from an accidental overdose. Anne-Marie recounted the moments where she was left unsupported by governmental systems in this time of deep need and mourning, such as the moment she learned the outcome of her daughter’s toxicology results through a news broadcast. This brought all the more magnitude to the moments she described feeling autonomy—in telling the prosecutor that she didn’t want the man who sold her child drugs to go to prison, or in charting her own path of healing by writing letters to him and finding her own “justice” in their correspondence.
Each speaker offered their own practice of restorative justice: restorative justice hubs in Chicago de-escalating conflicts using a “for us, by us” approach, decriminalising drug use and public health initiatives in Portugal, and Anne-Marie’s letter writing and creation of a policy campaign aiming to end the failed war on drugs and better protect children. As Anne-Marie described, she was most impacted in feeling that her daughter’s life mattered to someone more than just her, honouring, in the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, that “when life is precious, life is precious.”
Schools and Police
The second panel on Schools and Police, facilitated by Laura Cooper, was chaired by speakers Tayyiba Bajwa, Michaela Rafferty, Johnathan Akindutire, and Saqib Deshmukh. The panellists looked to the increased reliance of police to manage children and questioned their efficacy in meeting the complex needs of children. The panel commenced with a short video from Roxy Legane, founder of Kids of Colour, who has successfully advocated for the removal of police from schools in Manchester.
Prepared with an overarching comparative view of schools and police in both the U.K. and U.S., Tayyiba Bajwa, echoed the concerns raised by Roxy relating to the disproportionate impact of schools, noted the lack of guidance or systematic monitoring that characterises police presence in schools and voiced concern at the limits of police power.
Michaela Rafferty followed with a contextualised view of the impact of police in schools– the solidifying of the schools to prison pipeline. With the alarming statistic that school exclusions in England almost doubled last year from the previous year, Michaela emphasized that the presence of police in schools is the beginning of the process of criminalising young people.
Michaela was joined by Johnathan Akindutire, a campaigner at the Difference, who supplemented Michaela’s assertions with his lived experience as a young person who had experienced lengthy school exclusion punishments. Johnathan shared the consequences of schools’ excessive reliance on exclusions as a method of behavioural management– namely adverse effects on the life choices, mobility, and health of the school’s most vulnerable students. In addition to the stigma that accompanied exclusions, Johnathan highlighted the financial burdens imposed on his family as he fought for his education. He explained that the cause of his behavioural issues, learning difficulties that made school less accessible, were never addressed, and encouraged the promotion of an inclusive education system with pastoral leaders.
The final panellist, Saqib Deshmukh, concluded the second panel by hammering in Johnathan’s call for effective intervention. Saqib noted that police engage with youth when it’s too late. Instead, schools should rely on pastoral intervention, restorative justice, and conflict resolution. Saqib explained that, to effectively implement these practices, police officers must be removed from schools. Not only do police engage in harmful practices while in schools (like surveilling Muslim students under the Prevent programme), but teachers defer to police officers when they are present, thereby undermining positive systems that may be in place.
Each panellist emphasised the same message: schools house groups of vulnerable students with complex needs, and police do not contribute to the environment students need to thrive.
The Conference’s third panel, featuring two government officials, Alan Webster, the Deputy Director of Youth Justice Policy at the Ministry of Justice, and Phil Bowen, a new member of the Youth Justice Board, touched on some of the successes of the UK government in recent years in addressing youth justice. However, the panel also laid bare the dramatic shortcomings of the current system. While effective work has been done in reducing criminalisation rates of young people and channeling more funding into the youth justice system, candid discussion from conference attendees demonstrated just how much more work needed to be done. The question-and-answer session of the conference’s third panel, in particular, articulated that both a dramatic increase in funding and a fundamental rethinking of how the UK government approaches youth justice was necessary in creating a system that achieved the necessary goals of all in attendance.
Indeed, the panel’s third speaker, Dr. Sarah Beth Kaufman, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Trinity University in the United States, demonstrated a potential way to reshape how we approach youth justice in the UK. Speaking on her work in the United States, Dr. Kauffman showed how restorative justice—a collaborative decision-making process where those harmed, those who caused the harm, and the community at-large come together to define their own justice solution—is one way to strive for better results in the UK’s youth justice system. Restorative justice practices, Dr. Kaufman noted, when properly implemented in schools cost little to run, reduce criminalisation, and foster a more engaged and compassionate school environment.
Protecting/Safeguarding v. Criminalising/Investigating
YJLC’s final panel of the evening highlighted central themes from previous panels, primarily that systemic failures by both civil and criminal legal systems cause cascading harms in young peoples’ lives. Maya Sikand, barrister at Doughty Street Chambers, began the session by describing her casework representing Rianna Cleary, who, at eighteen, gave birth alone in a prison cell. Her baby, Aisha, died shortly after birth. Rianna’s harrowing experience, as reflected by the coroner’s report on Aisha’s death, was the result of broad and ongoing failures of social services throughout Rianna’s life. Maya described Rianna as an incredibly vulnerable young person who was bounced around and eventually curtly dismissed from the care system and experienced multiple contacts with the criminal legal system due to her being exploited. Chris Callender, partner at Simpson Millar, spoke to his experience bringing similar civil challenges against local authorities and public bodies for failing to fulfil their duty to protect young children, where children in young offender institutes are especially under resourced by the state. John Drew concluded by reiterating the deep connection between failures of public agencies to provide care to young people and their resulting involvement in the criminal legal system, and the failure of courts to provide a suitable space for children.
In light of these failures, Dr. Hannah King advocated for “contextual safeguarding,” a framework used to understand youth behaviour in the full breadth of their community, such as their school and friend group, rather than solely considering heir home and family environments. This approach seeks to strengthen social and community ties amongst young people, as expanded on by Raheel Mohammed’s description of his work as the founder and director of Maslaha, a non-profit promoting Muslim empowerment and dismantling Islamophobic policies and practices. He explained that broad-stroked narratives are used by state agencies to justify mass targeting of marginalised communities and obscure the individual lived impacts of these programs. Instead, growing local, “granular” contexts and community infrastructure offers opportunities to nurture alternative ways of living beyond these harmful narratives.
See our Summit Highlights film below to get a flavour of the discussions. More details of each panel is available here.
Written by Sara Flinn, Logan Graham and Devonae Robinson - Berkeley Law, International Human Rights Law Clinic