Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The age of responsibility: a tough call

This is a bit of a brain-dump (I normally like to spend longer on these things). Stimulated by this BBC article today (16 June 09): http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8100319.stm

Rules and exceptions
This debate can be viewed in part as a debate between macro-level principles and values on the one hand, and detailed micro case-studies on the other:

a)the macro effect of a low age of responsibility is to put a disproportionate amount of emotionally and physically neglected and abused children into jail, which has the side effect of reducing their chances of employment and social contribution from vanishingly small, to zero. So those with the least natural opportunity are given the least opportunity (via punishing them for something they did). As a headline, this tends to make people feel bad. It seems unjust in some way...

b)...but several detailed counterfactuals erode the case for raising it. The example given by MAMAA of olders coercing youngers into carrying drugs and weapons is a warning that must be heeded somehow if raising the age. This is a cruel irony that is the agony of policymaking: by putting in a law to protect younger kids you can unwittingly put *some* of them in more danger than they were in before!


One size fits all?

Also I think the debate is about the difficulty of pursuing a 'one size fits all' policy when children's circumstances vary so wildly within an age group. There are some 12 year olds who for their own reasons have grown up hard and fast, and seem fairly aware of what they are doing, whereas others genuinely make mistakes, or get coerced into doing something, or are what I call 'emotionally disabled' (see Vizard's key statement about developmental immaturity) and so cannot seem to appreciate the gravity of their actions. Raising the age is intended to protect the second group, to give them a chance to 'grow out of it' and become positive contributing citizens. But raising the age also has the effect of allowing the repeat offenders to offend without fear of sanction.

In the Daily Mail Briton's mind, this latter 'unfair' effect (the perception of letting young criminals off scott-free) far outweighs the benefits of protecting the vulnerable. "Screw the vulnerable" they say, as they selfishly focus only on protecting their personal interests, on ensuring that miscreants are basically eradicated (unless, presumably, it's their own child who offended, in which case there should be lenience because someone else led their little angel astray?). This is the crux of the debate: it is a battle to keep a selfless, societally-minded flame burning in today's culture and policy. It is an age-old battle to use legislation to protect ourselves from ourselves, from our tendency towards selfishness to the detriment of others... but in defending the greater good we must be careful not to inadvertently create a brand new set of negative issues that end up outweighing the success of the original policy intentions (a theme I will develop in another blog, called 'Beware of solutions').


Just shifting the problem?

Raising the age will only truly help those vulnerable kids to develop if they are simultaneously given sophisticated and enduring support to mend the various negative things they have endured that got them into this negative space in the first instance. Otherwise they will simply carry on misbehaving until they *are* older than the new minimum age, and then enter the criminal justice system (CJS) all the same. So an effective model must be to use the initial arrest/caution/whatever as a *trigger* to set off a bespoke, joined-up package of healing and development measures.


Life in Scandinavia

It was also interesting to see the BBC describing a model from another country. The thing to bear in mind here is that the law in Norway will be a projection of the values, culture and structure of Norway when the laws were passed : if they have a model that wortks it is because it is integrated with a lot of other Norway-specific features of public life. If you try to imagine applying this specific aspect of Norwegian law/crime prevention strategy to the UK, naturally you think it could never work here - because it would jar with other parts of UK law and service provision and create new issues and loopholes. A bit like putting in a mismatched heart from a donor into a heart-failure patient's body - the body will reject it unless it integrates holistically with the rest of the body.

I am mentioning this as a warning: we shouldn't reject something just because it won't fit *straight away* and easily. If the Norwegian model seems to work better than ours in terms of outcomes/statistics/public perception, then perhaps we should study their whole model to see if a fundamental shift in crime prevention is required in the UK. I would suggest that the growth rate in the prison population, combined with the incredibly high reoffending (aka recidivism) rates in the UK, are a pretty clear that something is not going as well as it could, so we should be open to fresh and radical ideas (but only if they are any good - I'm not a fan of radical new stuff just for the sake of it!)


The bigger picture - accept obstacles as a fact of life

Finally it is important to say that I do realise that the CJS is only *one part* of the jigsaw that represents the crime prevention landscape, the others being things like family, peers, schools, equal opportunity, health of the economy, housing policy. As a good friend pointed out to me, if a child's immediate family/"carer" situation is extremely negative, then there is a limit to what govt policy and initiatives can really achieve without the carers' support. But this must not be a reason to stop trying. It is as if we are saying "we would have the perfect solution, if it wasn't for the parents". This is the very essence of multiple deprivation: the kid is at the wrong end of several factors, each of which serves to reinforce one or more of the others: a perfect negative feedback loop. Here is a quote from a 1973 paper I was reading, by a guy who wrote about 'cybernetics' and was berating governments' lamentations over their economic crises:

"It has a political theory but it does not understand the system it is manipulating. It is just laughable to say for example; ' the theory is all right but the trade unions (or the city, or the banks, or the consumers) will not operate the theory'. The unions, the city, the banks and the consumers are all elements of the total system that the govt claims to be able to govern."

A successful remedial or preventative initiative should *study, understand, welcome, and integrate obstacles into its very being* - not wish them away. Here's a good example. Kids won't share a biscuit nicely, because they are both too selfish. So instead of blaming the kid for being selfish, you build selfishness into the solution: one has to break the biscuit, knowing that the other has to choose which bit she gets. Tai- Chi uses the attacker's momentum and aggression to bring the attacker down. Similar concept.

So perhaps we should stare the rubbish carers in the face and say "I accept you are part of the problem here, and I am going to focus on you as much as anything else". This of course is not easy - it trespasses into the private domestic space, a space where no govt is generally able to enter without someone shouting 1984, a space that opens the door to abuse by a bad govt. But this is the front line. If we can't work with today's parents, then we have to work on tomorrow's parents, whilst accepting that an improvement is at least a generation away. It should not be beyond the wit of man to turn this viscious circle into a virtuous circle.

In conclusion I would say:
this is a VERY difficult debate, I don't envy the poor sods having to call it
...but it is only one of very many factors in the overall game of crime prevention and social inclusion...
...and we must be careful not to inadvertently make new problems while we solve old ones...
...but we mustn't be put off by the seemingly insurmountable obstacles to progress: we must build the acceptance of these obstacles into a solution that uses their energy!
It is worth studing the scandinavians more - they are an interesting and very different social setup (but then they also dubiously dabbled in eugenics - look it up in wikipedia...)

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