Young people who are treated with respect and given a “voice” in their encounters with juvenile court are likely to avoid further entanglement in the justice system, according to a study published in the United Kingdom.
“Giving young people voice and the opportunity to engage in proceedings can help them identify as active agents in the [justice] process,” said the study by the Centre for Justice Innovation.
The Centre, housed at the Institute for Criminal & Justice Policy Research at the University of London’s Birkbeck School of Law, explored how “procedural fairness”—or the lack of it—impacted youth appearing before Youth Court.
Interviews conducted with a sample of 25 justice-involved youth last year found that changes in treatment and approach made a significant difference to their perceptions of whether or not the justice system was fair—even in cases where they recognized they merited punishment for their behavior.
“Much of what they told us related to procedural fairness, a key dimension of problem-solving justice,” the report said.
“Procedural fairness holds that when people feel fairly treated by the justice system, irrespective of the objective outcome of their case, they are more likely to trust and therefore confer legitimacy on it.
“Evidence shows that when the public perceive the criminal justice system as operating fairly, it can increase their belief in the legitimacy of the system, making them more likely to comply with court orders and potentially less likely to reoffend in future.”
The researchers looked at four separate factors they said drive procedural fairness: the ability to understand the court process; having a voice in the proceedings; being treated with respect and dignity; and being able to trust the “neutrality” of the decisions made.
In many cases described by the young people, when at least one or more of those factors were present, they felt more confidence that they were being treated fairly.
“[They] talked to me directly, so I understood better,” said one. Another said he felt more comfortable when he was told who the various professionals in the courtroom were.
But others complained they were left “in the dark.”
“I didn’t even know what my sentence was, ‘cause all they said was a bunch of numbers,” said one.
In another example, a youth who said the judge in his case took time to explain why he was being given a curfew made him feel that his voice and interests were being respected.
But another reported that he ”could only speak when I was spoken to, and that just [to reply] ‘yes,’ ‘no.’”
Another recalled he kept asking the judge “when do I get my chance to speak?”
The report found that the young people responded badly when they were treated with disrespect.
One complained that judges and court personnel were “not very polite—I felt like they were talking down to me, calling me disgusting and stupid.”
Another recalled that her assigned lawyer spent most of the time in court shopping online.
The researchers said that a few comparatively “light lifts” in changing the atmosphere of the court could produce major changes.
In a statement accompanying release of the briefing paper, the Centre said that the restrictions on court proceedings created by COVID-19 added “an additional dimension” to the challenge of dealing with justice-involved youth.
“Treating people with dignity and respect is vital if justice institutions are to be seen as fair and legitimate,” the study concluded. “This may be especially important for young people as research suggests they ‘are more sensitive to certain aspects of [system stakeholder] demeanor such as signs of rudeness and lack of respect.’”
Download the briefing paper here.