Plenary Session 2: Barry Goldson – From pre-emptive intervention to custodial detention: Systematic human rights violations in English ‘justice’

Professor Goldson began by highlighting the well-known fact that youth justice has become much more punitive in the last 15 years. He added that the English system flagrantly violates most human rights. He also wished from the outset to dispel the myth that Wales and England should be treated as one, highlighting that Wales has undergone devolution and is now largely compliant with international standards. Goldson sought to raise three propositions to support his views that England is systematically violating human rights standards in relation to youth justice.

The first proposition is that England comprises one of the most punitive juvenile justice systems in the industrialised democratic world. The second proposition is that punitivity has been institutionalised over the past 15 years by an endless stream of legislation. Goldson outlined briefly the legislation that has been brought in that has an effect on the youths in England. His final proposition is that the net effect of this legislation serves to systematically violate the human rights of children.

Young people are now targeted by the system in a very particular way. A child may not even have committed an offence and yet the mere fact that they may be at risk of committing an offence in future may bring them into the system. This is anathematic to traditional principles of criminal justice. It used to be the case that children only came into the criminal justice system where they had committed an offence and in those circumstances there were clearly defined guidelines for the administration of justice. This would have been in line with international standards. Now intervention can take place before an offence is carried out. Children are exposed to intervention on the basis of what they might do. Goldson argued that perceived risk is not a crime; they are innocent and this innocence is being seriously compromised. It appears from expert evidence that Goldson referred to that there is little to show that early intervention is successful; rather the idea is dismissed as ‘fanciful’.

The UN first expressed concern in 1995 about the levels of detention and since then numbers have actually doubled, which Goldson noted was a graphic violation of children’s rights including the right to life: from 1990 to 2007 there have been 30 youth deaths in detention. A youth of colour is 6.7 times more likely to get a sentence of over 12 months than a white youth. The UN is due to report again this year but Goldson expects them to express few positives and quite a number of negatives. Goldson concluded by arguing that the challenge for those concerned is not to seek out the interventions that work but rather to abandon the ones that do not work.

Summary provided by LL.M (Criminal Justice) candidate, John Cronin.