So what is the answer?
Well, minds immeasurably superior to mine have been debating this question so far be it from me to offer the definitive solution. But again, I have my views, based upon experience, hope and a certain political naivety
Firstly, one thing I want to make clear which I didn't in my last post is that the nexus between criminal offending and living on benefits is not exclusive, although, in a Magistrates Court, on any given day, 80% to 90% of offenders are on benefits.
Perhaps that is because they feel disenfranchised from society and therefore feel no loyalty or duty of care to that society which is perceived to exclude them. So effective sentencing might start with not needing to sentence because there is no offending. Can we give people a real, palpable stake in their society. Perhaps people will not attack something which they feel a part of. I'm not at all sure what the overall answer might be but guess what? It will need investment, not only financially but in time and effort, not just for and by the few but in society as a whole. How that is to be done is beyond me but I just hope that if the ideas are there, we can summon up sufficient investment to make it work.
That's not just so much pie in the sky either, in my experience. I have seen many examples of offenders who have been turned away from a life of criminality because they are suddenly made aware that they are able to give and their views are given value and listened to. The problem is that the longer it is before intervention, the less chance there is of success.
Let me give you a recent example. This is a sixteen year old lad who has been the bane of the Wolverhampton Youth Court for some time now. He is damaged goods, the early part of his life being characterised by ignorance, abuse, poor role models etc. Looking at his criminal record you would be hard pressed to find any chance of salvation in him. In fact, his rate of re-offending is such that when he is in Court, his record is never up to date.
At present, this lad is on a Youth Rehabilitation Order with intensive surveillance. This is basically the last chance saloon for a youth. The next stop is custody.
He was up in front of my Bench a few days ago for breaching his YRO. However, owing to workload, he was not brought back to Court until several weeks after the breach.
In this time, he has stopped offending, begun to engage with the Youth Offending Team and his case worker, and is making plans for a future which includes education and employment.
Chaps, I didn't come down in the last shower, neither did my colleagues nor the professionals who deal with him. We know that sometimes people tell us lies
However, mirabile dictu, he seems to have turned himself around and suddenly developed a sense of responsibility and maturity. We all saw it in Court. Gone was the gauche, paranoid, slouching youth. Before us was a straight, apparently confident, level headed young man, at ease with himself. The reason for this transformation which, whilst unusual, is not so unusual as to be considered miraculous was because he has begun an "Independent Living" regime. He is still, to all intents and purposes, in the care of the local authority, but lives in his own flat, responsible for his own life, and with nobody to chide him along.
As he said to us:- "If I don't get my act together, there is nobody to do it for me. Nobody to get my food, nobody to do my washing and cleaning." He went on at some length and with evangelical fervour, but you get the idea
One thing he did say though, is that he feels in control of his life for the first time and accepts that he was given the chance to realise that the world didn't owe him a living. He likes the idea of self governance and has extended it as far as he possibly can. He also appreciates that people do listen to him and take his vies into account.
So perhaps, a possible sentencing option might be to make the offender responsible for his own existence. it won't work with everybody but so what? It is my view now that this young man, though with a long way to go, is getting there, and without the need to send him to custody.
This is, of course, an example chosen by me to fit in with my agenda and there are many who do not make it as youngsters in the criminal injustice system. My point is, it took a lot of investment in time, money and effort to get this lad to wake up and smell the proverbial coffee, but I'm satisfied that he has crossed his personal Rubicon. Sorry for the excessive use of clichÃ©, I'm beginning to sound like a social worker
There is another event that can cause a young offender to suddenly change his ways which I've seen on many occasions and I'm sure those who work with youths might agree with.
This is when they suddenly realise that the opposite sex have a function other than to be the butt of puerile jokes and that femininity, rather than something to be despised, holds a mysterious promise of delights as yet unimagined
Don't knock it chaps, the power of love, nascent in otherwise immature callow youth, brings with it a strong sense of the need to protect and provide, along with the concomitant responsibility. It works, and had diverted many a thorny problem away from a life of crime
The Youth Offending Teams are dedicated and do their best but the solution to each individual case is just that - individual and it takes a great deal of time and effort to find the trigger. If you can find that trigger, it will produce a much better and more durable result than merely punishing the wrong doer.
So tell me, which would you rather see? Time and effort to find the trigger to generate the enthusiasm to change, or warehousing an already defensive, youthfully paranoid individual with lots of others of the same ilk.
Sometimes young offenders get to do things which others can only dream of, but for those who haven't had to make the choice between criminality and responsibility, if we can engender a feeling of self worth which brings an individual back from the brink by, for example, giving him the responsibility of captaining a boat crew on a lake, or planning and leading an expedition to get him to begin to recognise his value as an individual, and his role as a valuable individual in a society which suddenly seems less alienating, then perhaps it is worth it.
We have a lot of professional, dedicated people, with no end of enthusiasm to invest time and effort. What we are starving these people of, is investment, because it doesn't sound good when the newspaper trumpets the fact that a bunch of young ne'er do wells has been given the chance to demonstrate their worth on fun projects while the law abiding can only stand and watch... until you understand why.
Would I encourage my son to become a criminal in the hope of getting a free adventure holiday or would I prefer to see him grow up with a sense of right and wrong and a moral philosophy that I might have had a hand in encouraging?
It doesn't always work. I'd be crackers to even think it would. But it does sometimes. Really, it does
I think that's enough for one post. Do I continue or are people sick to death of me going on and on ad infinitum?