Youth Work's role in the Youth Justice System

In the run up to YouthLink Scotland’s policy seminar: Youth Works’ Role in the Youth Justice System, Youth Justice Participation Worker, Ruth Kerracher gives us an overview of Staf and CYCJ’s exciting new participation project Youth Justice Voices and how youth work plays an integral role in this work.

Picture of a group of young people and youth workers.

Thanks to funding from the Life Changes Trust, Staf and CYCJ have embarked on a three year project to amplify the voice of young people with experience of both the care and justice systems. The project is led by a steering group of young people called Youth Just Us. Group members have already engaged in critical dialogue with key figures such as Deputy First Minister John Swinney regarding the care experienced bursary and with Minister for Children and Young People Maree Todd in relation to the new Disclosure (Scotland) Bill. They have also engaged in the Independent Care Review and shared their views on UNCRC incorporation, all of which has happened in a relatively short space of time as the group only established themselves in April 2019.

From the inception of the project it has become apparent that justice-experienced young people are not listened to. In part this is down to a lack of understanding of what meaningful participation is, and to how it might work in the justice system, as well as an underlying a fear around what might happen if we bring “young offenders” (to use an unfortunate, stigmatising label) together.

For many of the members of Youth Just Us participation is a new concept – but not for all. Some of the group are already active members of care-experienced forums but have not experienced fora which raise justice issues. It’s in this respect that we believe that Youth Just Us is a bit different. Young people aren’t referred, selected or elected. They won’t be sanctioned or have a court report written about them if they miss a week. They can opt in and out and that’s fine. We want them to come because they want to be there. We believe this works because we take a youth work approach by offering a safe space which combines fun, social activities with creative opportunities which value young people and allows them to feel heard.  We believe that they also attend because we don’t just listen, we act on what they say. Youth Just Us not only steers the project but drives the work of Staf and CYCJ as we work to ensure that we improve policy and practice for young people, with the views of Youth Just Us members contributing to existing policy and practice strategy groups.  In this way, the voice of young people can be relayed and expressed to those who make decisions at national level.

If we want to move away from tokenism and genuinely give young people’s views the due weight and attention that they deserve, then we must co-produce and create participation opportunities which are both personally and collectively rewarding. Across the board we need to recognise this and support young people to engage in such opportunities by not attaching conditions to them. They shouldn’t be sanctioned for not attending or prevented from attending due to behaviour. We further stigmatise young people if we gate-keep and decide on young people’s behalf who are the most deserving and undeserving. By doing this we are infringing upon fundamental participation rights. Instead I believe we need to work creatively alongside young people to create opportunities which meet their interests and needs. We cannot do this alone. Youth Just Us would not work were it not for the partner agencies who continue to support young people to attend every week. Furthermore, participation projects shouldn’t be an “add on.” If we want young people to volunteer their expertise and time to a project such as Youth Just Us, it must be well resourced and equipped to properly support young people.

Over the next three years we hope to share learning from the project and to devise activities and opportunities which will enable more care and justice experienced young people to drive change.