One Possible Scenario: the barest of facts
Boy, 14yrs is walking home after a couple of hours with his friends. He is a good boy. His mother said ‘Be home by 10pm’ and he will be. He hears footsteps behind him. Turning around he sees it is an older boy whom he recognises from school. This older boy left school just a couple of weeks ago. He is almost 16 years old. The older boy may be under the influence of some substance. He challenges the younger boy to ‘stop looking’ at him. The younger boy starts to walk more quickly. There is an exchange of words. The older pushes the younger and the younger boy falls, splitting his forehead and lip on the kerb. The older one flees when he sees the blood. The younger one uses his mobile to call his mother to come get him. Mother seeks immediate medical attention and the police become involved following discussions with the medical staff. The older is arrested and charged the following day.
It may or may not be important (to you) that older boy is from an immigrant family. His parents have recently separated and are low-income. He struggles with English. Younger boy is British. His parents are middle class; they own a successful business and own a large house.
What do you think should happen next?
Allow me the evil of generalisation…
If you’re writing for the Daily Mail you will in all likliehood emphasise the unprovoked nature of the attack; the age differential; that the alleged offender was intoxicated; the primacy of the need for punishment. You will print pictures of the injuries; of the large comfortable home and the concerned respectable tax-paying business-owning sucessful parents. You will mention the non-British origins of the perpetrator. That his parents are seperated. You will write of the percentages of immigrant benefit claimants. You will be indignant that you cannot name the perpetrator.
If you are a UKIP or Conservative Party (or any one of the myriad parties to the right of the political spectrum supporter) you will – in all likliehood – deplore the degeneracy of today’s too-liberal society; bemoan the lack of boot camps and/or national conscription for young offenders and/or the young generally; call for immigration borders to be closed and for withdrawal from the EU. You will be concerned that British streets are no longer safe. You will speak of your fear for your children when they leave your sight. You will be certain that rising crime can and should be dealt with by harsher punishment: longer prison sentences; maybe bringing back corporal punishment; supporting marriage and encouraging mothers to stay at home. You will blame multiculturalism and the hegemony of ‘the left’. You might even quote some religious text – an eye for an eye? – and use that to justify a desire to have the victims have a say in sentencing.
The Guardian might report the incident in a small tucked away column. But most likely will not report at all. If they go for a larger article the emphasis will be on levels of inequality and their impact on crime rates. There will be a nod in the direction of options open to the police and the Procurator Fiscal. The criteria which will be applied when they weigh up those options. There might be some mention of marginalisation of youth in that area where the offence took place. The lack of meaningful work and the divisions in the community. An ‘expert’ in community relations and engagement might be quoted.
The blue-collar ex-Labour voter will tend to agree with the Daily Mail. ‘These foreigners are mucking up everything’. They might reflect that things are not always as reported.
The left-leaning academic will nod at the Guardian but shake their head a bit at the slight hint of middle-class fear in the text. They will agree with the inequality thesis. Social exclusion fosters criminality. What is required are resources to ensure ‘inclusion’ policies are implemented. You know just the right person to do that…
The touchy-feely left-wing Social Worker who happens to pick up the Guardian that day (the stuff of right-wing and Daily Mail nightmares) begins to think of the possible reasons for the older lad’s actions. Maybe he is upset about his parents split; he has lived with domestic violence; he has in fact been the victim of parental abuse; he has a substance misuse problem; he is ‘socially disadvantaged’ (poor, foreign) and socially excluded (poor, foreign, with English as a second language, without friends, suffers a possible illness). Perhaps the younger boy offered provocation. Perhaps this was a case of misunderstanding exacerbated by a language barrier. Perhaps he has an anger management problem. Perhaps he needs a befriender. The younger lad has supportive parents by the sound of the report so no worrying over him.
So, whose moral universe is the ‘correct’ one? Which (of the crude examples) do you find yourself preferring?
Does it change your own assessment of the bare facts to hear the following additional material:
– the older boy has Aspergers
Or the following:
– the younger boy taunted the older boy
Or the following:
– that the younger boy’s mother is regularly beaten by his father and has been throughout the 20 plus years of their marriage. Divorce is out of the question for religious reasons.
How would those facts change the reactions of the cyphers above?
Would charge or prosecution of the older boy serve the public interest? Was the younger boy in need of protection?
I read a report yesterday – in the tabloid my Dad buys ‘because it’s cheap’- and got to thinking. What had the Reporter deliberately chosen to emphasise because it made good copy – or perhaps more significantly – it mirrored and amplified the political leanings of the newspaper and its readers?
I also remembered the volume of cases referred to me in my last job. The child offenders whose offending went hand in glove (without any exception I ever experienced during the near decade I was performing the assessment tasks) with their family circumstances; their poverty and insecurity; their exposure to domestic violence or to physical, sexual or emotional abuse; their low educational attainment or truancy; their poor housing or parental addiction problems… The decision I had to make was a) was there sufficient evidence to substantiate the offence ground or some other care ground and b) whether or not those child offenders required compulsory measures of supervision.
The system in Scotland – the Children’s Hearing System – is based upon a holistic assessment of child need. The Kilbrandon Report established the principle that a child offender was as much in need of care as a child who was offended against – and in fact the two very often went hand in glove.
I don’t condone criminality. I understand that many people survive abuse or deprivations and yet remain law abiding. However a quick look at the Prison statistics will reveal disproportionate numbers of prisoners with mental health problems; with looked after and accommodated backgrounds; with chaotic early lives.
What judicial punishment will succeed where the lifetime of punishments and suffering have failed?