Making sense of youth justice: a comparative study of Italy and Wales

Lead Research Organisation: CARDIFF UNIVERSITY
Department Name: Cardiff School of Law and Politics


The research seeks to identify, explain and evaluate differences in the youth justice cultures of Italy and England and Wales. Attitudes and practices in relation to the use of criminal sanctions in relation to young people seem to be radically different in the two jurisdictions. Since the mid 1990s England and Wales has developed a youth justice based on early and progressive state intervention through the criminal justice system. It is taken as a fundamental given that, without such intervention, primarily through criminal conviction and punishment, young offenders will fail to develop a sense of responsibility. Yet, in Italy, the vast majority of cases are disposed of by judicial use of diversionary filters which avoid and defer conviction and penal intervention for Italian youths. This means that 80% of young people coming into the youth justice system are dealt with without conviction, including some who have committed very serious offences (for example rape and homicide). This is a process institutionalized and reinforced by reforms introduced in 1989 of the Juvenile Criminal Procedure Code. In contrast, in England and Wales, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 limited and regulated the use of pre-conviction diversionary filters so that conviction became the routine response to youth crime. Differences are also marked at the other end of the penal system in relation to the use of custody: in Italy there are around 500 young people in custody at any one time while in recent years in England and Wales the figure has gone close to and beyond the 3,000 mark before falling back. Despite recent falls, rates of incaceration of youths are much higher in England and Wales than Italy.
The research seeks to explain and evaluate these apparent differences by comparing patterns of diversion and disposal in the two systems. A sample of youth justice cases was taken from South Wales and information gathered to provide a reasonable match with data already existing from a sample of cases from Emilia Romagna in Italy. Key characteristics such as the type and circumstances of offence, the offender's previous record and personal and family background were noted systematically. To this basic quantitative data were added extensive notes on the reports on file from magistrates, social workers, psychologists and police officers which offer evaluations and assessments of the case and the offender. This gave us evidence of the ways in which practitioners perceived youth justice and reasoned about their roles and appropriate outcomes. This evidence was supplemented by semi-structured interviews with magistrates, police officers, social workers, prosecutors and judges. We asked similar questions in both Italy and Wales and used a series of hypothetical cases or vignettes in which the practitioners were asked to suggest how they would expect specified fact situations to be dealt with in their jurisdiction.
From this empirical base we seek to make sense of varying practices and outcomes in terms of different youth justice 'cultures'. This means that we sought to interpret different perceptions of the purposes of intervention, the responsibility of young people for their actions and the utility of criminal conviction in the light of distinctive cultural and institutional contexts. The relationship between civil and criminal jurisdiction, between the trial and the pre-trial phase and the self-perceptions of magistrates (lay magistrates in Wales, professionals in Italy) are identifed as key institutional differences. The differing perceptions of youth crime as a social issue and the relationship of young people to the family and the community represent key differences in cultural contexts. The result is very different 'tones' to youth justice which mean that the practices of each jurisdiction 'make sense' within their own contexts. This has important implications for the way we use comparative examples to inform domestic policy making in youth justice.

Planned Impact

The primary non-academic beneficiaries would be practitioners and policy makers. Youth justice practitioners in Wales would benefit from a detailed and nuanced portrait (based on rigorous empirical evidence) of the perceptions of professional groups and their interrelations and the way that these feed into youth justice practice on the ground. This includes police, prosecutors, Youth Offending Team (YOT) members, Magistrates and their legal advisors. But more broadly there are those working in health and social services for young people seeking to understand the interaction between youth justice and social services for young people. All of these groups will have their own understandings of these matters based on their work experiences. But independent analysis of practice can promote reflexivity in practitioners, particularly as we have few detailed, empirically-grounded portraits of youth justice practice in Wales. The only published recent example was based on interviews with managers, practitioners and social work students working in two YOTs. Our empirical data is more broadly based including interviews with YOT managers and social work practitioners but also police (inside and outside YOTs), magistrates and their legal advisors and Crown Prosecutors. Even more crucially we have the opportunity to compare and contrast the picture from interviews with that emerging from the case-files. Furthermore a book length treatment will enable us to give a much richer flavour of practice than we have been able to do in journal articles (see publications list attachment for details)
This account of youth justice practice in Wales will be also very important for policy-makers within the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG), politicians within the Welsh Assembly and those seeking to influence them (for example NACRO Cymru).This is because there is a live political and policy debate in Wales as to the extent to which the control and development of youth justice should be a matter devolved to WAG. Currently criminal justice is not a devolved matter and thus primary responsibility for youth justice remains that of the Home Office and the Youth Justice Board (YJB) of England and Wales. But many of the services upon which youth justice intervention depends are devolved, for example responsibility for social policy and young people in relation to such matters as health, social services and education and training. The broader policy environment in Wales has been characterized as having a distinctive emphasis on welfare and universal entitlements for young people. This has been reflected in, and supported by, the development of the Wales Youth Offending Strategy, agreed between the Welsh Assembly Government and the YJB, which has a particular welfarist flavour. The document setting out the policy agenda of the currently governing Labour/Plaid Cymru coalition stresses non-custodial and preventive interventions based on stronger co-ordination of youth justice and education, housing and mental health services. Most recently, Professor Rod Morgan has been asked to produce a report for the WAG cabinet considering the benefits and risks of devolving responsibility for youth justice (report expected shortly). This will then feed into further political discussions between WAG and Westminster. A detailed empirical portrait of the working of youth justice in the most populous part of the principality (South Wales) will enable clearer judgements to be made on how far youth justice practice on the ground in Wales is really distinctive and the difficulties of implementing the different policy emphases of the YJB and WAG. The potential is to enrich the evidence base for sound policy making.


10 25 50
Description ' Making sense of youth justice cultures: a comparative study of Italy and Wales' 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Participants in your research or patient groups
Results and Impact _ Invited seminar City Law School, March 2012
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2012
Description 'Legal cultures and youth justice 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Primary Audience Participants in your research or patient groups
Results and Impact _, invited seminar Centre for Crime, Law and Justice, Law School, Strathclyde University, Glasgow June 2011
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011