Magoosh GRE

Youth Justice Policy in Britain (1945-1981) – from Punishment to Welfare

| November 24, 2016
  1. Introduction

The discussion of the youth justice policy in Britain has re-gained importance in the aftermath of the August 2011 riots, which spread across London and other major cities in the country. Think tank analysts and policy experts argued, that the youths which allegedly took part in the riots, were disillusioned and de-motivated young people from broken homes (Politics UK, 2011). The deep societal problem behind youth engagement in the London riots raised the question about the efficacy of the youth justice system in Britain, and debates about its institutional reform permeated the political discourse.

After the gruesome murder of James Bulger in 1993 by two ten-year old boys the public and policy-makers became convinced, that only a general policy reform of the youth justice system is not sufficient. Rather a reform of specific sectors such as the ones dealing with anti-social behaviour and gang crime was much more urgent (Guardian, 2011). The purpose of this short essay is to critically review the different phases in the development of the youth justice system from the 1940s to 1981. Based on the conclusions, in the final section recommendations for policy reform will be made.

  1. Research question

The purpose of this essay is to critically approach the different stages in the evolution of the youth justice policy in Britain. Based on this observation, the paper will provide an assessment of how the system has evolved and what the main trends in its transformation are. For clarity the author has decided to separate the observations in the following stages – from punishment to welfare, young offenders enter the community, and the strengthening of the Intermediate Treatment. Each one of them will be critically analysed in the following sections.

  1. The youth justice system in Britain: a review

Before we proceed with the examination of the main developments in the youth justice system in the set period, it is important to provide a brief overview of the main components and structures of this system.

Similarly to other types of youth justice systems, the British one inclines towards prevention, rather then retribution (Bottoms & Dignan, 2004). Bottoms and Dignan (2004) refer to the British youth justice system as a correctionalist and committed to the prevention of committing offences. The idea of the correctionalist system implies stronger intervention on behalf of the state, as opposed to earlier views such as letting young offenders grow out of the crime.

This characteristic trend, experts argue, reflects a much more complex and multi-level approach to dealing with youth crime, involving different elements such as parents and agency teams. The trend has been accompanied with an intensive institutional reform, such as the introduction of the semi-independent body of the Youth Justice Board with the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act (Community Care, 2010). In the years to follow, there has been a trend for the unification of all activities related with youth justice under the umbrella of a single department – the Ministry of Justice, in order to create accountability and higher levels of responsibility in one of the most important and problematic policy areas in Britain.

  1. The 1940s – from punishment to welfare

It is now clear that society’s views on crime change over time and are susceptible to historical and social conditions. The youth justice system in Britain is an example of the transformation of the concepts of crime and offender in social and political terms. Therefore the way young criminals have been treated by the criminal justice system has been a subject of reform throughout the years.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, perhaps one of the most important developments in the youth justice system is that a line between children and adult offenders was finally drawn. For the first time in the early 30s and 40s, the courts were obliged to consider the welfare of the child (Thorpe et. al, 1980). This marked a significant transformation of the whole justice system, because it determined a different role of the courts, related not only with taking punitive action, but also correction and care for the young offenders. It is now clear that the transformation from punishment to welfare has been later underpinned in another important document – the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (Youth Justice Board, 2008). As the later stages of the British youth justice system demonstrate, the latter has always been responsive to the developments, taking place in the field of human rights at any particular time.

  1. The 1960s – young offenders and the community

The trend towards welferism which started in the early 1930s continued in the next several decades, and had its peak in the 1960s, when a special legislation, concerned with the social integration and correction of the young offenders was passed (Youth Justice Board, 2008: Thorpe et. al, 1980). In 1969 the Labour government passed a legislation to introduce a revised youth justice system, based on welfare principles and reformation of criminals (Thorpe et. al, 1980). The 1969 Children and Young Persons Act emphasized the role of the community as the environment, which would play a major role in the social integration of those who committed offences. The act also established the so-called “halfway house” which was the middle way between being subject to a Supervision Order (which requires minimum contact between supervisor and young person) and being taken into care (Youth Justice Board, 2008; Children and Young Persons Act, 1969). This new establishment came to be defined as Intermediate Treatment (IT) and according to some observers was the foundation of the modern youth justice system.

Another intended development of this period, which however, did not come to fruition, was the attempt to increase the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 14 years. Prior to the 1969 Act, the criminal responsibility age was only 8 years (Thorpe,, 1980).

The developments which took place between the 1940s and the late 1960s are a result of the rise of the welfare state in Britain and the rest of Europe. A major historical and sociological trend, the rise of the welfare state, which affected almost all policy sectors, was provoked by the advent of capitalism and consumerism, which according to social historians, exacerbated the class divisions in British society (Greenaway et. al, 1992). The youth justice system was no exception of this trend, and the establishments of the 1969 Act were a signifier of the fusion between community and policy. Youth crime was no longer a detached criminal activity for which only courts had responsibility – in the late 1960s it became a priority for the whole of the British society.

  1. The 1970s and 1980s – the strengthening of the Intermediate Treatment

This decade was marked by persistence in the community-based treatment of young offenders. The role of community remained strong, and some judicial changes, such as the inclusion of “specified activities” in the Intermediate Treatment occurred. These were used to persuade magistrates to use communal sentences, instead of custodial sentences (Youth Justice Board, 2008).

In this sense, the young offenders were made to participate in the welfare of the community as part of their correction process. In the light of these developments, it is interesting to notice that the connection between the community and young offenders remained twofold – young offenders were still treated as part of society, despite their violations. At the same time they were expected to contribute to its development. In its turn, society was to participate in their rehabilitation and integration in the post-offence stage. This is an important characteristics of the British youth justice system, because it reveals two things – that there is no positive connection between decreased custody and the level of youth offences, and that the British society took a middle stance between two types of justice – restorative justice, focusing on repairing the harms, resulting from the offence, and retributive justice, which relates to facing the consequences of the punishment imposed. This middle stance was about to change in the 1990s, when the cruel murder of two-year old James Bulger by two ten-year old boys was to push back the youth justice system towards punitive actions.

  1. Conclusion and recommendations

This essay has attempted to critically examine the main stages in the development of the British youth system between 1945 and 1981. Two major developments have been discussed – the transition towards welferism and the steps towards correction, rather than punishment and custodial action. The role of the society has remained significant, and despite the developments of the early 1990s, the re-integration of young offenders has remained on the agenda.

After the murder of James Bulger in 1993, public attention was once more shifted towards the reform of the youth justice system, and more specifically against the prevention of offending and re-offending, rather than mending the consequences of it. Therefore it is important that government efforts targeted towards bringing all the institutions involved in the British youth system under a coordinated scheme of action. Different units such as social workers, community volunteers, the police and those involved in education are to work together through enhanced dialogue. This means that the sectoralism in the criminal justice system needs to be reduced, and replaced with harmonization of efforts of different actors on all levels. This would ensure a holistic, rather than sectionalized approach to solving issues, related with youth crime in Britain.


Bottoms, A. & Dignan, J. (2004) “Youth Justice in Great Britain”, Crime and Justice, Vol. 31

Children and Young Persons Act (1969), 22 October, The National Archives,

Available at:

Retrieved 03.03.2012 

Community Care (2010) “Ministry of Justice to take control of Youth Justice Board”, 20th May, Thursday,

Available at:

Retrieved 03.03.2012

Greenaway, J.R., Smith, S. & Street, J. (1992) Deciding Factors in British Politics, London: Routledge  ch. 2  pp. 29-39, ch 3.

Guardian (2011) “What next for youth policy”?, August, 25,

Available at:

Retrieved 03.03.2012

Politics UK (2011) “Comment: What is causing the riots in London?, Nick Cowen, Monday, 8th of August,

Available at:

Retrieved 03.03.2012

Thorpe, D.H, Smith, D., Green, C.J, & Paley, J.H (1980) Out of Care: The Community Support of Juvenile Offenders Allen and Unwin

Youth Justice Board (2008) “A Brief History of the Youth Justice System”,

Available at:

Retrieved 03.03.2012

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Category: Essay & Dissertation Samples, International Relations, Social Science