Youth court: The original problem-solving court

Carmen D’Cruz

Last week marked the deadline for expressions of interest in our offer of support to youth courts interested in enhancing problem-solving elements at their sites. While we are visiting those that have applied to us, it seems a good time to be clear about what we mean by ‘enhancing problem solving’ in youth court.

The central insight of problem-solving theory within criminal court practice is simple— that rather than just processing cases, a problem-solving approach tries to use the tools and authority of the court to change an offender’s behaviour. While problem-solving approaches differ from court to court and model to model, they all display a number of the following elements: specialisation; collaborative intervention and supervision; fairness; accountability; and focus on outcomes.  Yet when many people hear the term ‘problem solving’, they automatically think of flagship stand-alone courts like the Red Hook Community Justice Center. But this bespoke, separate court building model is by far the exception rather than the rule. Most problem-solving approaches in court operate out of traditional courthouses and use existing court time.

Our youth court work follows the far more common tradition of working within existing courts and using existing resources. This is partly because many of the principles and methods of specialised problem-solving courts already exist within our youth courts. Our aim is not to set up new problem-solving courts distinct from existing youth courts, but to improve on and add to problem-solving practice in youth court. Problem solving is already somewhat embedded in youth courts (so much so that some consider them to be the original problem-solving courts). Take specialisation, a key marker of problem solving: youth court cases are informed by youth-specific assessments and heard by specially trained magistrates and district judges often in an specialised courtroom designed to promote engagement with the target offender cohort, those aged between 10 and 17.

Moreover, youth courts’ mandate encourages a problem solving orientation, i.e. an approach that targets the underlying issues of a young person’s offending. The principal aim of youth courts is to prevent offending while having regard to the welfare of the child, and, according to the Judicial College’s Youth Court Bench Book, they ought to order ‘intervention that tackles particular factors that lead youths to offend’. Recently issued guidelines from the Sentencing Council – directing courts to pay greater attention to the young person’s background and personal circumstances – further enable youth courts to address the inter-connectivity between offending and life circumstances.

But, as recent reports have made clear, work needs to be done to better align youth court’s aspirations with reality. The Carlile Inquiry stated that ‘courts do not possess the means to address the wide range of welfare issues that so often underlie a child’s offending’. Similarly, the Taylor Review noted that ‘magistrates frequently report that they impose a sentence without having a real understanding of the needs of the child’. Both advocate an increased focus on problem solving in youth court and the government backs ‘adopting, where possible, the characteristics of a problem-solving approach.’

At the Centre for Justice Innovation, we think that existing elements of problem solving should be improved and new elements introduced in youth court, informed by the aims of enhanced accountability (e.g. introducing post-sentence judicial review and monitoring), enhanced specialisation (e.g. improving assessment tools to better identify and address young people’s unmet risks, needs, and assets), and procedural fairness (e.g. introducing or improving tailored explanatory materials to increase understanding of and engagement with the court process). We think that the evidence on problem-solving courts suggests that this will enable youth courts to effectively address youth offending and thereby reduce crime, increase public safety, and improve outcomes for children, families, and communities.

We are looking forward to working with three sites around the country in the coming months. We anticipate that findings will not only generate learning for the local areas involved in the project, but will also provide insights that other areas can draw on in considering how they too can further develop practices to support children and young people away from offending.