The Role of Youth Conferences in the Criminal Justice System

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Introduction

Youth conferences are meetings that are convened to consider how young people should be dealt with when they commit offenses. It is expected that at the end of such conferences, there will be an action plan for dealing with the offenses and the offenders according to the principles that include reparation, rehabilitation, and repairing of relationships. The main objectives of youth conferring include providing an alternative process to court proceedings for dealing with juveniles who commit offenses, enabling community-based responses to offenses, and emphasizing restitution and acceptance of responsibility by the offender. The government of South Wales has provisions regarding youth conferencing through the Young Offenders Act of 1997. Youth conferencing as a strategy to deal with juvenile crime and recidivism is based on various rationality which includes welfarist, Justice and corporatism.

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Important characteristics of youth conferencing

Muncie (2009, p.330) explains that youth conferencing mainly seeks to encourage and ensure that young people take responsibility for their crimes and actions. These conferences also seek to involve the victim, offender, and the whole community in the justice restoration process. A youth conference service follows a referral from the police or the public prosecution services as a diversion from prosecution in court. The offender must consent to participate in a conference but they also have the freedom to withdraw this consent any time they feel like it. If an offender withdraws their consent, the conference does not proceed and the issue under discussion is often taken back to court or the prosecutor.

The NSW Department of Home Services (2010, Para 1-7) explains that the publication or broadcast of names or any other information that could identify children who participate in the conferences is illegal. Conferences are organized by people who live and work within the local communities. They are normally contracted to organize and facilitate the conferences as the need to do this arises. Special efforts are continuously been put in place particularly in New South Wales to ensure that members of the indigenous communities also get involved in the organization and facilitation of youth conferences.

Another characteristic of youth conference is that not every case that is referred by the police to youth justice conferences is taken up because conference administrators at times question some decisions made by the police. The key participants in these conferences include families, victims and their supporters, the police and the offender’s lawyer. Conveners can also invite respected opinion leaders, interpreters and other skilled professionals like social workers, probation officers and teachers if they deem it appropriate. People who have been known to or might frustrate the normal conference process are often ejected or rejected from participating in the conference (NSW Department of Home Services, 2010, Para 1-7).

Assessment of youth conferencing

There are numerous provisions within the Young Offenders’ Act of 1997 upon which different people draw conclusions that youth conferencing is a hybrid technique used by the government. Muncie (2005, p.2) suggests that globalization has had two major transformations in criminology that are worth noting. Firstly, criminal justice policies are converging (being integrated into a hybrid). The second transformation can be noticed in the macro social-economic developments and initiatives in international human rights and the increased rate at which homogenization of criminal justice policies is occurring. He further explains that the current Neoliberal policies are based less on social inclusion.

The justice rationality is evident in Part two section 7 of the act. The second principle states that children alleged to have committed an offense are entitled to be informed about their right to obtain legal advice and they should be granted the opportunity to obtain that advice. Corporatism can be noted in the fourth principle also found in this section. This principle provides that children who are alleged to have committed an offense should be dealt with in their communities in order to assist their reintegration and to sustain family and community ties. The fifth principle clearly illustrates the welfare rationality in that parents are to be recognized and included in justice processes involving children and that parents are to be recognized as being primarily responsible for the development of children. This was the main theme that served as the driving force for the welfare model (Young Offenders Act, Part two, and Section 7).

The juvenile justice system has continued to place little emphasis on the social contexts of crime, measures of state protection and prescriptions of individual, family or community responsibility and accountability. This shift clearly serves to bring out the influence of Corporatism in the juvenile justice system. Principle number two found in Part two Sections 7 of the act also has a principle based on this rationality. The principle provides that criminal proceedings are not to be instituted against a child solely in order to provide any assistance or services needed to advance the welfare of the child or his or her family or family group.

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Evaluation of youth conferencing

Polk, Adler, Muller & Rethman (2003, Para 8) explain that Australia and other countries like Northern Ireland are using youth conferring as a means towards a wider peace process. The use of youth conferencing has increased since the year 2002 to become the second most widely used approach to divert juveniles from the formal justice system after police cautioning. Youth conferencing takes place in a context characterized by compassion and understanding and many people believe that this is an important part in reducing recidivism in the future.

Many evaluation studies on youth conferencing are recorded at the beginning of the year 2003. Shapland (2009, p.163) outlines that the main indicators against which evaluation of youth conferences are done include recidivism rates, perceptions regarding the experience (this assessment tries to establish how offenders, victims and other participants think of the justice system), Satisfaction rates and the level of community participation and activism in youth conferencing.

An evaluation study carried out in Ireland by Campbell et al (2005, p.6) shows that majority of the offenders and victims had enhanced positive feelings from the experience and thought the process was fair. Many offenders readily accepted diversionary referrals and were without previous offense records. It is believed that if many participants perceive the process as fair and are satisfied, the likelihood of the offender to abide by the laws increases and they make peace with the victims, this then contributes to the peace process. Their findings also point out a general reduction in recidivism. Victim participation was also high and the offender ended up apologizing to the victim.

However, these encouraging findings should not be simply assumed because there are important weaknesses that make youth conferencing to be less effective. Walgrave &Bazemore (1999, p.118) attribute this ineffectiveness to factors like the reluctance by victims to participate in the process, court decisions that sometimes strike down conference agreements and enforce lesser penalties on offenders and that evaluations take long. The absence of evaluation data makes it hard to direct policies and impairs decision-making. Despite these concerns, youth conference is a promising alternative to other punitive measures in the conventional criminal justice system, and the state and organizations involved in juvenile justice should endeavor to address the emerging concerns in order to make youth conferences more effective.

Conclusion

Youth conferencing is one of the ways that is used to divert young offenders from the conventional criminal justices system and mainly seeks to encourage young people to take responsibility for their crime and ensure that they take responsibility for their actions.

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Reference List

Campell,C.,Devlin,Roisin.,O’Mahony,David.,Doek,Jonathan.,Jackson,John.,Corrigan,Tanya and McEvoy,Kieran.(2005).Evaluation of the Northern Ireland Youth Conference Service NIO Research and Statistical Series: Report No. 12. Belfast. Web.

Muncie, J. (2009).Youth and Crime. [E-book].London, SAGE Publications.Web.

Muncie, J. (2009). The globalization of crime control—the case of youth and juvenile justice: Neo-liberalism, policy convergence and international conventions. London. Web.

NSW Department of Home Services. (2010). Conferencing, the NSW scheme. New South Wales. Web.

NSWLegislation (1997).Young offenders act of 1997. New South Wales. Web.

Polk, K., Adler, Christine. , Muller, Damon and Rechtman, Katherine. (2003).Early Intervention: Diversion and Youth Conferencing, A national profile and review of current approaches to diverting juveniles from the criminal justice system. Web.

Shapland, J. (2009).Urban Crime Prevention, Surveillance, and Restorative Justice: Effects of Social Technologies. [E-book] Florida, CRC press. Web.

Walgrave and Bazemore, Gordon. (2009).Restorative juvenile justice: repairing the harm of youth crime. [E-book] New York, Criminal Justice Press. Web.

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