Sentencing young offenders

AuthorMike Hough,Julian Roberts
Publication Date01 August 2005
Date01 August 2005
Sentencing young offenders:
Public opinion in England and Wales
University of Oxford and King’s College
London, UK
This article presents f‌indings from a survey that systematically
explores public opinion, youth crime and justice in England and
Wales. Particular emphasis was placed upon public reaction to
restorative sentencing. The survey uncovered a number of
misperceptions about youth crime. Few respondents rated youth
courts as doing a good job, and most thought that sentences
imposed on young offenders are too lenient. A considerable gap
existed between the sentences that respondents wanted to see
imposed on young offenders and the sentences that they assumed
would be imposed. Generally speaking, expected sentences were
less harsh than favoured punishments. When respondents were
asked to impose sentence in case scenarios, there was signif‌icantly
less support for custody as a sanction when the young offender
had made some restorative steps such as writing a letter of
apology and promising to make compensation to the victim.
When asked about alternatives to imprisonment, signif‌icant
proportions of respondents found alternatives to be satisfactory
substitutes for imprisonment, a result consistent with research in
other jurisdictions.
Key Words
attitudes to punishment • reparation • sentencing • youth justice
Criminal Justice
© 2005 SAGE Publications
London, Thousand Oaks
and New Delhi.
1466–8025; Vol: 5(3): 211–232
DOI: 10.1177/1466802505055831
Juvenile justice constitutes a criminal justice priority in most developed
countries, as evidenced by the proliferation of scholarly and legislative
activity (e.g. Bala et al., 2002; Weijers and Duff, 2002; Tonry and Doob,
2004). Signif‌icant reforms have been introduced in many jurisdictions,
including England and Wales, Canada, the United States and Australia. In
England and Wales, radical changes to youth justice have been introduced,
beginning with the provisions in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 that
established Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) and the Youth Justice Board (see
Bottoms and Dignan, 2004). One reason for this wave of legislative activity
has been the intense public interest in, and high levels of concern about,
rising youth crime rates—or perceived increases (see Roberts, 2004a, for a
discussion)—to which politicians have been anxious to respond.
In light of the visibility of youth justice as a political issue, it is surprising
that the voluminous literature on public attitudes to crime and justice
contains no empirical exploration of British public opinion regarding this
issue. The views of the public in Britain regarding sentencing have been
systematically explored in recent years, but almost exclusively with respect
to adult offenders (e.g. Walker and Hough, 1988; Hough and Roberts,
1999, 2002; Mattinson and Mirrlees-Black, 2000; Chapman et al., 2002;
Hough and Park, 2002; Roberts and Hough, 2002, 2005). It is clearly an
oversight: as we shall discuss, polls reveal greater public concern about
sentencing of young offenders. There has been only one signif‌icant exam-
ination of views on youth crime and justice, using the 1998 British Crime
Survey (Mattinson and Mirrlees-Black, 2000).
This article presents results from a national, representative survey of
public attitudes to youth crime and youth justice in England and Wales.1
The survey focused on public reaction to the sentencing of young offenders,
and explored a number of issues, including:
perceptions of youth courts;
views on the purposes of sentencing young offenders;
differences in attitudes to youth and adult sentencing;2
sentencing preferences in specif‌ic cases;
views on restorative sentencing options.
The focus on restorative options needs some explanation. One im-
portant goal of the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act in England and Wales
was to promote the use of restorative responses to juvenile offending (see
Bazemore and Umbreit, 1995; Crawford and Newburn, 2003; Bottoms
and Dignan, 2004). As Bottoms and Dignan note: ‘restorative justice
initiatives of one kind or another do now form part of the mainstream
response to youth offending in England and Wales’ (2004: 162). Indeed,
restorative justice has had a great impact upon the youth justice systems
of many developed countries, especially New Zealand and Australia (see
Morris and Maxwell, 2001). In light of its growing popularity (and
Criminal Justice 5(3)

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