The Influence of Moral Panics, Public Anxieties and Short-Term Political Calculations on Youth Justice Reforms

The English youth justice system is a locus of persistent reform which is driven by a complex array of extraneous factors (Goldson, 2010). Underlying the various transformations which the youth justice system has taken is the tension between research-based knowledge alongside practice-based evidence and a variety of outside influences such as the emotive public, the economy, pressure groups and ideological commitments (Goldson, 2010). Due to the parameters of this artilcle, there will be an explicit focus on the tensions which moral panics, public anxieties and short-term political calculations exert on youth justice policymaking in contrast to research-based knowledge and practice-based evidence. This essay will argue that since the 1980s, research-based knowledge and practice-based evidence has typically played a marginal role in youth justice policymaking. It is important to note, however, that society has been exposed to periods where research and evidence has managed to exert more influence over youth justice policymaking than the emotive public and short-term political calculations. In arguing this, this essay will cover the influences on the youth justice system which has effected major changes, such as the James Bulger murder, the era of populism, the 2008 financial crisis and the August 2011 riots. The Mods and Rockers phenomenon in the mid-1960s will be utilised to define the term moral panic. Due to the scope of this essay, some major changes such as the ascendancy of the welfare period will be excluded.

The phenomenon of moral panics exerts an unhealthy level of influence over youth justice policymaking as seen during the 1960s and early 1970s with the Mod and Rockers (Cohen, 2011). The concept of a moral panic originated in Cohen’s thesis which argues that society is prone to periods where a person or group of people becomes defined as a threat to societal values and interests by the media which results in widespread anxiety (Cohen, 2011). This process occurs through the exaggeration or distortion of an event; the subsequent dire consequences which are perceived to happen if we choose not to respond to the constructed threat and the subsequent symbolisation of the perceived threat to society (Critcher, 2008). Characteristic to this process is that the reaction is always disproportionate to the threat (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 2009). This overreaction involves responses from social control agencies, who introduce new laws or increased enforcement to combat the perceived threat (Critcher, 2008). This response exerts pressure on and results in reformation to the youth justice system which is not typically based on the evidence base (Goode and Ben-Yehuda, 2009). This thesis was originally constructed based on Cohen’s observation of the British media in the period of 1964-65 where minor acts of disorder exhibited by two distinct, working-class, youth subcultures, the Mods and Rockers, were constructed as being emblematic of a social crisis (Best, 2011). Throughout this period, these subcultures were constructed as “folk devils”, the actors who threatened societal values (Cohen, 2011: xxvi). The deviance associated with the minor actors such as “brandishing deckchairs over their heads, running along the pavements, riding on scooters or bikes down the streets” were amplified in a process known as the “deviancy amplification spiral” by the mass media which contributed to the illusion that these groups threatened societal values (Cohen, 2011: 13). Once the deviancy was amplified and the scale of the perceived threat misconceived, Cohen (2011) identified a vastly disproportionate overreaction to the deviancy. The policies utilised overly excessive enforcement tactics across the country which resulted in over one hundred young people being arrested, the introduction of stiffer sentences, new criminal damage laws and the enforced cutting of long hair, to name but a few of the overreactions (Cohen, 2011). Moral panics and other large profile incidents which induce public anxiety traditionally influence juvenile justice in ways which disregards societal-wide crime trends and in ways which cannot theoretically be justified, given the reality of youth crime (Burns and Crawford, 1999).

During the decade of the 1980s, in response to wide-ranging criticisms of welfarism, the principle of “justice” ascended into the juvenile justice system as a new form of correctional model emerged partially in response to research-based knowledge (Muncie, 2004). The ascension of this principle into the justice system occurred with the introduction of the new Thatcherite conservative party who created “the most avowedly “law and order” manifesto in political history” (Newburn, 1997: 642 in Goldson, 2015: 172). This manifesto brought in reform to youth justice policy which was underpinned by academic research which argued for the processes of diversion, decriminalisation and decarceration (Goldson, 2002). Such notions were underpinned by a series of convincing academic arguments which were adopted and responded to by youth justice policymakers enthusiastically (Goldson, 2002). Drives to adopt diversion were based on the research-based claim that custodial sentences for young people were “damaging, expensive and counter-productive” (Evans, 2008; Goldson, 2002: 120). The processes of minimum intervention and diverting young people from the justice system was argued by academics to deflect young people from a self-fulfilling prophecy brought about through the stigmatising label of “criminal” and the negative social reaction of the justice system (Goldson, 2010). The principle of decriminalisation was developed through two research-based theoretical perspectives: abolitionism and labelling, which argue that the correctional system was overly punitive and argued for the process of decriminalisation through the remove of the label of “crime” from many deviant behaviours (Case, 2008). Arguments to adopt decarceration came from a variety of backgrounds, although the most prominent was based on practice-based evidence which stated prison does little to prevent (re)offending (Hazel, 2008). Such theories were grounded in policies such as in the introduction of ‘intensive intermediate treatment’ schemes as an alternative to custody and resulted in the widespread decline of youth crime and youth custody rates (Muncie, 2004: 269). Whilst research-based knowledge and practice-based evidence influenced the juvenile justice system in this decade, researchers at the time had something of a symbiotic relationship with distinct policy objectives which aimed to reduce state spending (Goldson, 2002). Short-term political pressures on youth justice policymakers to reduce government spending ensured that cost-effective measures were adopted (Goldson, 2002). Pratt (1987 in Goldson, 2002) argues that such economic drivers were the key reason for the penal reduction during the course of the 1980s, as alternatives to custodial sentences were openly welcomed to create an economically efficient juvenile justice system. As such, whilst it is evident that research-based knowledge and practice-based evidence influenced youth justice policymakers the relationship between evidence and policy is not straight forward, and remains influenced by other forces such as short-term political considerations of economic factors (Goldson, 2002).

Whilst in the 1980s research-based knowledge and practice-based evidence had a clear relationship with youth justice policy-makers, a profound, discernible shift occurred in the climate of policy-making from the 1990s which led to the pursuit of populist policies and devaluation of evidence-based knowledge (Matthews, 2005). The observations made by academics (Garland, 2001; Matthews, 2005; Pratt, 2002) argue that there has been a surge in punitiveness, although a division exists between whether this surge is driven by an anxious public or through a manipulation of public fears and anxieties by politicians. Garland (2001) argues that juvenile justice policies in this era have become increasingly politicised and the policy-making process has become highly populist. The politicisation of crime control measures in this era has resulted in a transfer of power to the public where it is argued that policymaking is increasingly based on responses to a fearful and anxious public (Garland, 2001). This era has reclaimed the valuation of “common sense” and “the authority of the people” at the expense of the social researcher, criminal justice expert and the evidence base (Garland, 2001; 13). Pratt (2002) identifies a similar shift and accounts for this new relationship between the state and the public as a key feature of a distinct, neoliberal political programme. Pratt (2002) argues that this process increasingly caters for public anxieties, brought about through the indifference of the general public which has led to increased demands for repressive punishment (Matthews, 2005). Wacquant describes similar observations to Pratt but identifies neoliberalism as the driving factor (Matthews, 2005). Such a surge in punitiveness has seen developments in the 1990s such as harsher sentencing, the increased use of incarceration and mandatory minimum sentencing laws (Garland, 2001). Whilst justifications for the rise in punitiveness may vary according to the academic researcher, the observations made by each academic remains consistent and identifies a shift away from research-based knowledge and practice-based evidence and the subsequent rising influence of an anxious public (Matthews, 2005). This paragraph serves to demonstrate that, whilst justifications for the transfer vary, there has been a discernible shift in the axis of penal power from research-based knowledge and evidence-based practice to that of an increasingly anxious public (Matthews, 2005).

Such a shift is evidenced by the transition from the youth justice developments in the 1990s which have occurred largely in response to the moral panic around youth crime brought about by James Bulger’s murder (Hazel, 2008; Pratt, 2007). This period saw a pivot in the axis of contemporary penal power where penal populism took over politics; this was a period where politicians tended to pursue electorally-attractive punitive policies as opposed to those policies which had the aim of curbing crime or promoting justice (Pratt, 2007). This changing climate of opinion was a product of various youth-related riots and disturbances, although the murder of two-year-old James Bulger in 1993 was the key turning point (Hughes, 2002). The incident occurred when James Bulger was led astray from his mother by two young boys where he was murdered violently; the two young people were constructed as folk devils and “othered” in the media and portrayed as emblematic of collapsing moral values (Bourhill, 2005). Whilst this murder was an atypical event, the media constructed the event as a stereotypical example of the degradation of research-based values (Bourhill, 2005). The moral panic and the media’s reaction pertaining to the event created a potent atmosphere of public anxiety due to the perceived breakdown of societal values (Bourhill, 2005). The media, as the sole source of crime for the majority of people, had a discernible effect on influencing public perceptions of crime; whilst crime trends decreased nationally during the 1990’s era, at any given moment approximately 80% of the public believed crime trends to be rising (Feilzer, 2015: 61). In line with this staggering misperception, there was a surge in punitiveness which saw a rising prison population in a sharp contrast to the 1980s decarceration. This wave of punitiveness saw populist policies pursued which promoted harsher sentences and more punitive measures to be introduced as a solution to misperceptions of rising trends (Matthews, 2005). Whilst New Labour’s youth justice policies were purportedly founded on evidence-based knowledge, such arguments are limited interpretations at best (Smith, 2006). The modernisation agenda of New Labour’s 1997 ministry included a professed commitment to evidence-based policy; however, it is illogical to understand the shift away from principles such as diversion and decarceration as based on research-based knowledge or practice-based evidence (Smith, 2006). Goldson (2010) argues that the trajectory of New Labour’s youth justice reform, introduced from 1997 up until 2010, was in direct opposition to research-based knowledge and practice-based evidence. Whilst research-based knowledge and practice-based evidence supports principles such as diversion, minimum intervention and decarceration, New Labour ministries have pursued an unjustifiable amount of youth justice legislation which has been founded on the opposing logics of actuarialism, early intervention, and penal expansion (Goldson, 2010). Encapsulated in this movement are harsher punishments and more punitive responses to youth justice than can theoretically be justified, which brings about implications for the upholding of social justice (Matthews, 2005). The 90% increase in the number of youth imprisoned between 1993 and 2003 dismissed criminological reason which argued for decarceration and received criticism from the United Nations Committee, highlighting their disapproval of the number of youth incarcerated (Bateman, 2012: 36). As such, the punitive turn seen in youth justice policies was largely the product of the moral panic surrounding James Bulger which ultimately induced a period of penal populism and a wave of short-term political calculations. During New Labour’s three successive ministries (1997-2010) following the murder there has been a distinct “sleep of criminological reason” (Goldson, 2010: 155).

Just as economic factors had an influence in youth justice policymaking during the 1980s, the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent economic recession caused policymakers to make short-term political calculations about the future of youth justice policies (Goldson, 2015). As a product of a distinct neoliberal model of capitalism, the 2008 financial crisis triggered the economic free-fall of the value of the pound and created a post-crisis era characterised by debt and austerity (Grimshaw and Rubery, 2012). One of the consequences of this economic disaster was the subsequent reductionism with regards to youth imprisonment (Goldson, 2015). Occurring in the context of austerity and widespread criticisms of England and Wale’s contemporary punitive nature, the number of custodial sentences given decreased by approximately 25% between 2007/08 and 2009/10 (Bateman, 2012: 37). In line with the reductionist movement, the period between February 2008 and August 2010 saw the decommissioning of 710 places in the youth detention centres, argued to produce an approximate saving of £30 million per year (House of Commons Justice Committee, 2013: 38 in Goldson, 2015: 78). Such movements occurred largely as a product of austerity, where short-term political calculations had to be made given the economic factors in play (Goldson, 2015). This is evidenced through other cuts in youth services; many councils as a product of this austerity implemented cuts in youth service, some cuts as high as 80-100% (Williams, 2011: np in Goldson, 2015: 178). Whilst this was the key driver for changes in youth justice policy, other factors are argued to come into play, although these explanations are only partial (Goldson, 2015). The National Audit Office (2010, in Bateman, 2012) offers the explanation that the decrease in youth imprisonment is a reflection of decreasing rates of youth criminality. Evidencing this claim is a distinct drop in indictable youth offending between 2008 and 2010 which saw a decrease of more than 40% (Bateman, 2012: 39). However, this fall has occurred after a sharp rise in youth offending; as such, the explanation is only partial and does not fully account for the subsequent downtrends in youth incarceration (Bateman, 2012). Whilst a myriad of factors influence youth justice policymaking, and whilst the process of decarceration falls in line with academic arguments, the short-term political calculations of the deteriorating economy ultimately drove such transformations across the horizons of the youth justice system (Goldson, 2015). As such, it can be determined that short-term political calculations have exercised more influence over youth justice policy-making than evidence-based knowledge.

In the following period, the August 2011 riots was the cause of widespread public anxiety which resulted in what constitutes a “moral panic” occurring across England (Kirkwood, 2016). The initial unrest occurred due to the killing of 29-year-old Mark Duggan who was shot by police; the unrest subsequently resulted in widespread unrest across the country as youth took to the rioting and looting shops (Kirkwood, 2016). Over the 6th to the 10th August 2011, an estimated 13,000 to 15,000 people rioted across English cities (Briggs, 2012: 10). The unrest which unfolded received an intensive amount of media coverage; throughout the riots a variety of headlines rolled out across England such as “Rule of the Mob”, in the Daily Telegraph, and “Anarchy in the UK”, in the Daily Star, fulfilled the role of amplifying the deviance of the event (Cooper, 2012: 8). Within such headlines were statements from politicians who denounced the behaviours of the youth and constructed troubled families and gangs as being behind the cause of the riots (Cottrell-Boyce, 2013; Kirkwood 2016). Young people were perceived to be emblematic of a “feral underclass” which resembled Cohen’s “folk devil” (Scambler and Scambler, 2011). The government response is well-encapsulated in Boris Johnson’s claim that: “it’s time we heard a little bit less about the sociological justifications for what is in my view nothing less than wanton criminality” (Slater, 2015: 123). Any attempt to formulate a response to the riots which did not embody the issues of behaviourisms was denounced as attempts to justify the behaviour which had taken place (Slater, 2015). From the start, the government responses to the moral panic conveniently dodged academic research around the changing socio-cultural context of post-industrial England and sidestepped the role of consumerism alongside other researched social problems (Briggs, 2012; Cooper, 2012).

In the wake of the riots, youth justice policies were formed which played into Cameron’s “all-out war on gangs” (Cottrell-Boyce, 2013: 1). One of the key responses was the 2011 Ending Gang and Youth Violence Report which aimed to reduce levels of gang membership and youth violence which was perceived as being out of control (Cottrell-Boyce, 2013). Considering the research and evidence, the justifications for such a report is limited given that the Youth Justice Board figures show that between 2007/08 and 2010/11 violence against the person and robbery committed by those under 18 fell by 33% and 11% respectively (Cottrell-Boyce, 2013: 194). Such responses are partial, however, as in London serious youth violence between 2008/09 and 2010/11 had risen by 3% overall, with some boroughs such as Enfield, Lambeth and Newam seeing rises of over 20% (Cottrell-Boyce, 2013: 194). Whilst such trends should not be generalised into a moral panic across the country, these statistics highlight that there is a worrying trend which highlights how society has become more dangerous for a particular minority (Cottrell-Boyce, 2013). The link between youth violence and gangs remains controversial in the domain of academic research, however; the report made the bold claim that gangs had a significant role in the August 2011 riots, supported by estimates that between 2-7% of 10-19 year olds in the UK were in gangs (HM Government, 2011: 17 in Cottrell-Boyce, 2013: 194). Statistics pertaining to gang membership have been problematised in criminological research for some time; authors highlight that such numbers are problematic due to the number of organisations who contribute and their broad and varying definitions of the term “gang” (Cottrell-Boyce, 2013; Hallsworth, 2011). Although, it is widely agreed by researchers that there is serious concern about the development of “gang policies” due to the minimal amount of research conducted in this area alongside conflicting evidence (Cottrell-Boyce, 2013). Furthermore, researchers have criticised that the embedding of “gangs” into reports designed to end youth violence are problematic as they neglect the socio-economic roots of violence and do little to understand the context of crime (Cottrell-Boyce, 2013). This report has principally ignored the large body of research-based knowledge available, instead opting to focus on developing pre-existing programmes and bringing in the term “gang” (Cottrell-Boyce, 2013). As such, it can be determined that the moral panic, public anxiety and short-term political calculations pertaining to the August 2011 riots effected more influence over youth justice policy-making than social researchers.

In conclusion, this essay has advanced the argument that research-based knowledge and practice-based evidence has typically had a marginal influence on youth justice policymaking, and over the time frame observed has generally exercised less influence than moral panics, public anxieties and short-term political calculations. This is not to say that the evidence-base has not had any influence continually, as the rise of the new “justice” model in the 1980s was largely derived from research-based arguments and practice-based evidence. However, the subsequent 1990’s era saw a turn away from the justice-based approach which, according to practice-based evidence, was working effectively to curb youth crime trends (Smith, 2006). As such, research-based knowledge and practice-based evidence has failed to consistently exert more influence over youth justice policymaking than moral panics, public anxieties and short-term political considerations the majority of the time.







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