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Say no to tougher sentences - empower young offenders with skills and understanding not harsher sentences

By: stagedoorscribbler - November 20, 2017

Archbishop Desmond Tutu a keen advocate of the philosophy of Ubuntu. Photo by Hattie Miles

The Tutu Foundation UK has hit back at a call from Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick for tougher sentences for young criminals.

According to a report in the Telegraph the Met’s top cop told prison reformers during a speech at the Howard League for Penal Reform that they should consider ‘harsher and more effective’ prison sentences for teenage offenders.

She argued that that trying to avoid sending young people to prison had left an increasing number of teenagers “simply not fearful of how the state will respond to their actions.”

But the Tutu Foundation, which encourages positive dialogue between youth groups and police in high-crime inner city areas, says this approach has been proved not to work.

It describes Ms Dick’s proposal as “unhelpful” adding that a strategy of tougher sentencing actually flies in the face of evidence which shows that young adults have the highest reconviction rates of any groups, with 75% being reconvicted within 2 years of release from prison. 

This is underlined by those who have seen violence on the streets at first hand. The Foundation, which has received much praise for its work resolving conflict and helping to build peaceful communities, cites 21- year-old ‘Blair,’ a youth facilitator who has experienced harassment and been a victim of knife crime. 

He says he doesn't believe punishment has ever been an effective way of preventing crime,” adding “It actually makes the situation worse by creating an environment where it is easy to form tight-knit crime syndicates or conglomerates.

 “Countries with the lowest crime rates focus on rehabilitation, rather than punishment. Finland, for example, has a centre where addicts can take drugs safely, wiping out a lot of associated crime and violence.

 “Countries like America, which focus mainly on the punishment of crimes, have virtually no rehabilitation and have even worse crime rates then us.”

 Fellow youth facilitator, ‘Anton’ (21), added: “If we look at the number of inmates who reoffend, we could conclude that getting a sentence isn’t a worry for ‘real criminals,’ so tougher sentences probably aren’t a massive concern to them either.”

Those serving community sentences have equally poor outcomes with the highest breach rate of adults serving community sentences, and the poorest outcomes are typically faced by young Black and Muslim men and care leavers, who are over-represented in the Criminal Justice System.

Tutu Foundation UK chairman Clive Conway says that the  Commissioner's comments are also at odds with findings from a number of expert reviews. These include the Harris Review which looked at suicide in custody among 18-24 years olds’ the Lammy Review which examined treatment of, and outcomes, for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Individuals in the Criminal Justice System and the House of `Commons Justice Committee Inquiry into Young Adults in the Criminal Justice System. 

All agreed that young adults in prison are vulnerable and that the experience of being in prison is particularly damaging to them as they are still developing and growing to maturity.

Mr Conway stresses that the TFUK works hard to empower conflict-ridden communities to tackle anti-social behaviour and violence but says the approach needed when dealing with young offenders needs to be carefully considered.

“Through our work, we recognise and agree with organisations like the Transition to Adulthood Alliance convened by the Barrow Cadbury Trust, that what is needed are approaches which recognise that young adults are a distinct group with specific needs, and that any Criminal Justice System interventions must acknowledge the fact that their maturity processes are still developing.”

The Foundation advocates the philosophy of Ubuntu  - The South African concept that recognises common humanity, connectedness and interdependence. Emphasising what people have in common, rather than their differences. It helps nuture and support young people to navigate the complexities of their lives and grow into purposeful, mature adults. Ubuntu is also the fundamental approach advocated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu himself.

“We do this by empowering them with the skills to listen to and talk with each other and the police about their experiences so we can contribute to reducing tension within communities and tackle gang violence and knife crime,” says Mr Conway. “We believe that this is the way forward and not harsher prison sentences.”

He adds that safe boundaries and nurturing are essential for all young people growing up. “Our Ubuntu Police Youth Roundtable Project is demonstrating that disaffected young people can engage effectively with their peers and authority figures in a safe environment. Supporting their development, self-worth and confidence are a vital part of the process. The potential is there but more resources are needed to ultimately make prison a much rarer end-game.”