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18.11.2008 Feature Article

BEYOND THE POLITICAL DEVIDE: MANAGING YOUNG OFFENDERS IN THE COMMUNITY.

Undoubtedly, the eighteenth century marked the beginning of the response to then new criminological theories, culminating into the concept of imprisonment as a form of punishment for offenders or those who fell foul of the law.

Significantly, the main rationale of imprisonment was to make prisoners repay their debt to society and offer them the space and opportunity to reflect on their misdeeds.

It can be said that imprisonment had for several decades worked.

However, given the increasing crime and violence in our society today, it is no longer a hidden secret that the frightening over crowding or over population of our prisons and its characteristic implication is a growing concern for most well meaning citizens regardless of their political partisanship.

As noted by some social commentators,' in this sort of milieu, it is virtually impossible to pursue, far less achieve, any of the traditional objectives of punishment'.

It must be placed in context that such commentators are even questioning the concept of imprisonment.

It is against this background that Tony Peters observed in the UNESCO Courier of June 1998 that 'new alternative to prison opened up more humane sentencing with a view to reintegrating offenders into society and that 'the flagrant inhumanity of correctional facilities, the psychological impact of incarceration and the social exclusion which resulted from this form of punishment brought about a growing skepticism about the prison system's capacity to rehabilitate inmates.'

The 1980's saw the emergence of two schools of thought as regards the deficiency of imprisonment as a mechanism of punishment,

Whereas one thought was that prison seems to have lost it's legitimacy as a punitive institution, another positioned that offenders serve their full sentence so as to restore the punitive function of imprisonment.

Nevertheless there are those unconvinced about the socializing virtues of the deprivation of freedom, who emphasized that 'in a democratic state under the rule of law, inmates are citizens entitled to legal protection and basic human rights.

It is within this context that the offender management and rehabilitation organization (OMRO ) holds the professional view that crowded prison conditions now seem to overshadow ideological discussions about the appropriateness, usefulness and humanness of incarceration and throws itself into the forefront of the debate for alternatives to imprisonment.

There are several reasons for OMRO's position to actively champion the course for alternatives to imprisonment. There are issues ranging from the cost of constructing and maintaining prisons, the failure in our view of imprisonment reducing crime, the impact of imprisonment on inmates, their families and the community and the ethos of seeking legal and judicial reform and the rehabilitation of the offender.

Given that modern criminologist have agreed that 'prison causes more ethical, social, psychological and economic problems than it serves, OMRO believes that its advocacy for effective alternatives to imprisonment is morally, philosophically and psychologically justified beyond political jingoism and ideological activism.

The practice experience in Britain and most developed societies are indicative of two fundamental principles that should guide sentencing decisions about which sentence is most likely to prevent further offending and promote public protection.

The first is that of 'proportionality', that punishment should be proportionate to the seriousness and persistency of offending, with the second principle being a reflection of the 'risk factor prevention paradigm.'

According to criminological research, young people are exposed to multiple risks, and display a higher propensity to commit crime.

Some of these key risk factors include inappropriate attitudes to offending, deficits in cognitive skills, inadequate parental supervision, unstable living arrangements, poor school performance and persistent truancy, exclusion from school or unemployment, association with delinquent peers,

dependency on alcohol; and or drugs and experiencing high levels of socio-economic deprivation.

The increased emphasis on ensuring that community interventions are effective, consists largely in developing programmes which has as it's target the risk factors identified above during the assessment of the young offender.

Research evidence has also demonstrated three further principles that should underpin the development and implementation of community intervention programmes.

These principles are what have commonly come to be referred to as the three 'Rs'.

The first 'R' is responsibility, making the young person accountable for his/her behaviour.

This is frequently achieved through offending behaviour programmes which adopt a variety of cognitive behavioural training techniques to address perceived deficits in a young persons reasoning, problem solving and social skills.

Evidence based practice also indicates that Parenting programmes either voluntary or as part of a parenting order by the court, can be viewed as a mechanism for reinforcing the responsibilities of parents to address their children's anti social behaviour.

The second 'R' is what is referred to as 'restoration', which is associated with the concept of restorative justice, which has been defined as: A process whereby parties with a stake in a specific offence collectively resolve how to deal with the aftermath of the offence and it's implications for the future.

In practice, 'restoration' has generally come to mean that the young person who offends is encouraged to make amends or reparation to their victims and or the wider community ( the young person being assisted in undertaking socially useful work ) as a way of repairing the harm done and reconciling victim-offender community relations.

A significant reason why restorative justice has become central to the ethos of community sentence is that it has the capacity to bring together two of the three core concepts underlying community interventions, as in the process of making amends, a young person also acknowledges responsibility for the consequences of his/her offending.

The last of the three 'Rs' is what in practice terms is referred to as 'reintergration' defined as the young offender paying their debt to the community, putting their crime behind them and rejoining the law abiding community

Clearly, practice is guided by the aims and objectives of preventing re –cidivism through the re-intergration of the young offender into his/her community through punishment that can be described as 'positive and demanding unpaid work'.

In practical terms, Community service officers have become the engine that drive the community sentence initiative agenda as their duties include the supervision of all young persons on Community initiatives or service and finding appropriate placement, where the young offender fulfills his/her obligations.

Evidence indicates that all placements are deemed to meet specific criteria such as :

• Be demanding in the sense of being physically and emotionally taxing. The degree of inconvenience and effort required by the community service work should be significant.

• Be designed to demonstrate to the community that the work undertaken by the young offender benefits the community by :

• Providing work to safeguard the community against further crime or to repair damage caused by crime.

• Carrying out physical work to improve the local environment or assist the local community.

• Providing work which combats the fear of crime or improve the appearance or amenities of a neighbourhood or locality.

The experience in Britain and some of the European countries indicate that it is a useful mechanism in their governments's effort to rescue and redirect young offenders as an element of rehabilitation and reintergration back into mainstream community life.

Ghana's approach should incorporate the ethos of keeping young offenders , particularly first time offenders who have been involved in minor offences away from the prison gates so as to keep them away from associating with hardened criminals within a prison regime.

For it is a common place knowledge that young offenders are taught the rudiments of more sophisticated and subtle forms of criminal behaviour, hence prolonged exposure to such renders their rehabilitation difficult if not impossible.

Furthermore, there is evidence that reveals that incarceration is an inappropriate response to minor infractions of the law. Most young persons who appear before the courts are members of dysfunctional families torn apart by anger, hostility and neglect.

Unemployment, poverty and a profound sense of hopelessness compounds their plight; therefore serious consideration must be given to the magnitude and complexity of the various issues affecting their lifestyles.

A Youth Justice Service, which can balance welfare with justice and promote the paramountcy of the welfare of the child and the young offender as enshrined in the twin legislations of the children's' act and the juvenile justice act, within a framework of a Criminal Justice System that values and has belief in alternative to custody initiatives devoid of political jaundice would be the most credible approach to managing youth crime in modern Ghana.

• THE AUTHOR MARCUS-CHRIS LAWSON IS A YOUTH CRIME PREVENTION AND MANAGEMENT PRACTITIONER IN AN INNER LONDON BOROUGH FOR OVER 12 YEARS.

• HE IS ALSO THE OPERATIONS DIRECTOR OF THE NGO,OFFENDER MANAGEMENT AND REHABILITATION ORGANISATION(OMRO)

• HE HOLDS BA.HONS. (LEGON)MA. APPLIED SOCIAL STUDIES AND DIPLOMA IN SOCIAL WORK,DURHAM UNIVERSITY(UK)

Marcus-Chris Lawson
Marcus-Chris Lawson, © 2008

The author has 63 publications published on Modern Ghana. Column Page: MarcusChrisLawson

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