Justice, Law and Human Rights

There is no uniform adoption and application of an international set of rules upholding what is ‘right’ to protect society’s most vulnerable.

Disparities exist within and between countries; killings and enforced disappearances of human rights defenders, journalists and trade unionists persist despite international scrutiny and condemnation; unsecured rights for ethnic minorities, marginalised peoples, the young and the differently-abled all illustrate that there is little room for complacency within the arenas of law and justice.

Addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goal 10: Reduced Inequalities and Goal 16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, our publishing in this area examines how the law is responding, or failing to respond, to these issues in a global context.

Bristol University Press and Policy Press are signed up to the UN SDG Publishers Compact. In Justice, law and human rights, we aim to address the following goals: 

Justice, Law and Human Rights

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What constitutes social work is a central question in theory building. If social work wants to be more than a model idea, we cannot answer this question without looking at social work practice. The article presents ‘doing social work’ as an approach to theorising social work through ethnographic research. In addition to the basic theoretical and methodological characteristics of the approach, we present four modes of doing social work, which have been developed based on a comparison of different ethnographic studies in different fields: deciding in uncertainty; playing with ambiguity; using categories of difference; and disciplining the everyday. In the following, the mode of playing with ambiguity will be singled out and presented in detail, as it has an important impact on doing relationship while doing social work. In the article, we will use ethnographic data and examples to show how actors actively deal with different roles without making this explicit.

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From the late 1990s onwards, ‘desistance’ – understanding how people move away from offending – has become a significant research focus and widely evident in central policy. Since 2014, desistance thinking has been transplanted to youth justice in England and Wales from the adult justice system. Yet, discussion or examination of the relevance of desistance thinking – a body of work primarily rooted in the experiences of adults – to children in the justice system remains scarce. However, children’s distinct needs, by virtue of their young age and ongoing neurodevelopment, together with their typically normative offending, raise important questions about the relevance and meaning of desistance thinking to their pathways away from crime. Coordinated by the National Association for Youth Justice, this collection brings together voices from academia, policy and practice to examine the topic of desistance with children from multiple vantage points and through a range of pertinent themes. Contributions include those that consider and critique the relevance of desistance to children from a theoretical and conceptual perspective (such as through the lens of Child First and temporality); examine the socio-structural dimensions of desistance (including gender, race and religion); and explore the application of desistance thinking with children (encompassing themes of implementation, participation, relational practice, arts-based interventions, sentencing and morality strengthening).

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This chapter discusses the importance of the everyday experiences of Black and mixed-heritage boys outside and in the criminal justice system through the lens of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and postcolonialism (HMIP, 2021a). It explores the intersecting experiences that affect Black and mixed-heritage boys desisting from offending behaviour. Salient factors including masculinity, poverty and identity will be considered and particularly how these are worked through in a context of the places and spaces these children inhabit (Glynn, 2014; Wainwright et al, 2020). The racialisation of Black and mixed-heritage boys, the impact of racism in their everyday lives and how this informs decisions they make regarding offending behaviour will be discussed (Glynn, 2014; Williams and Clarke, 2016). This will include exploring the experiences of Black boys and young men in their everyday familial lives and questioning the role of both the Black community and the state education service in providing a path out of the criminal justice system towards desistance from crime. In particular, the chapter will explore the available options for Black children excluded from school, specifically how the Black community can provide alternative challenges to offending behaviour and profitable pathways for Black boys to follow. These community-led alternatives exist in interesting counterpoint to the circumstantially seductive but ultimately self-destructive options of contesting spaces and places through criminality, gangs and violence (Williams and Clarke, 2016; Wainwright et al, 2020). This involves developing strategies to invest in social, educational and psycho-social capital that provide attainable and sustainable opportunities for Black and mixed-heritage boys. Importantly, co-creative strategies will be suggested to centre the (counter-)narratives of Black and mixed-heritage boys.

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The neoliberal focus on crime reduction has meant that many youth justice systems see ‘desistance’ from crime as their primary goal. This chapter contends that their attempts to address children’s offending directly and literally has promoted a reductionist, negative-facing approach based on a flawed and decontextualised evidence base. In contrast, contemporary research in youth justice, summarised as the Positive Youth Justice (PYJ) model, emphasises the importance of a more holistic approach primarily promoting positive child outcomes generally, with desistance as a specific secondary outcome. This chapter argues that, in order for PYJ to gain traction within the neoliberal criminal justice discourse, it requires an explicit understanding of how positive child outcomes lead to desistance from crime. To this end, it proposes a ‘theory of change’ for PYJ drawn from the Constructive Working (CW) framework, which highlights the central importance of facilitating children’s ‘pro-social identity’. Although developed from empirical research with young people, CW mirrors the established concept of ‘secondary desistance’ in the adult literature. However, to be appropriate across youth justice, it is necessary not to assume that the child has an established pro-offending identity from which to shift but instead emphasise the role for all agencies in ‘developing’ each child’s pro-social identity. In England and Wales, amalgamating PYJ and CW into a four-tenet principle called ‘Child First’ has already shown potential in allowing traction for progressive, evidence-informed, youth justice practice within a neoliberalist political context.

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Desistance is a temporal concept, yet its temporality is largely taken for granted. Indeed, the conceptualisation of time is underdeveloped in desistance theory, youth justice scholarship and criminology more broadly. Desistance theory brings together theories of narrative and identity, social bonds and maturation and the life course. Arguably, in the context of children, the most influential of these is the developmental life-course perspective. Developmental life-course criminology conceives adolescent stages of development in bio-psycho-social terms, focusing on cognitive, behavioural and environmental risk factors for so-called crime and ‘delinquency’. Such developmental discourse thus tends to cast ‘abnormal’ child or adolescent behaviour in terms of pathology, risk and deficit. Rarely factored in is the child’s perspective. Least of all, children’s experience of time. In this chapter, using Bronfenbrenner’s social ecological chronosystem as well as Moten’s notion of fugitivity, different conceptions of time are explored to show how desistance is always oriented beyond the child, outside the child’s time. An analysis of time as it is experienced by children and young people suggests that desistance is an adult concept with little relevance to children’s and young people’s lives. From this perspective, using desistance as a framework for working with young people risks problematising the child in ways that can limit their flourishing, growth and becoming. Thus, it is argued that a deeper understanding and acknowledgement of child and youth temporalities is important for shaping – indeed limiting – youth justice intervention in young people’s lives.

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Critical Reflections from Theory, Research and Practice

Available open access digitally under CC BY-NC-ND licence.

‘Desistance’ – understanding how people move away from offending – has become a significant policy focus in recent years, with desistance thinking transplanted from the adult to the youth justice system in England and Wales. This book is the first to critique this approach to justice-involved children, many of whom are yet to fully develop an identity (criminal or otherwise) from which to ‘desist’.

Featuring voices from academia, policy and practice, this book explores practical approaches to desistance with children in the ‘Child First’ context. It gives new insights into how children can be supported to move away from offending and proposes reforms to make a meaningful difference to children’s lives.

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This chapter outlines the impetus for the volume, which comes from the shifting youth justice context in England and Wales. It is published at a pivotal juncture as desistance thinking is introduced into policy and practice with children across the spectrum of official sanctions, against a backdrop of scarce academic discussion of this development. The chapter presents the book’s aims and guiding questions, which include consideration of whether the concept and theorisation of desistance is helpful when applied to children; how desistance thinking is currently understood and implemented in youth justice policy and practice; and what helps children to move away from offending. Following an overview of the book’s rationale and aims, the chapter provides an extensive review of the existing evidence base on children and desistance and highlights the areas of difference and uncertainty compared with adult desistance thinking. The chapter then moves on to describe the policy context within which desistance thinking has become central to youth justice in England and Wales. The chapter concludes by detailing the book’s structure and the nature of the various contributions.

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‘Desistance’ has entered youth justice parlance principally from adult-centric research and practice, through the work of those advocating for a more strengths-based approach to working with children and evidencing the benefits of moving away from risk-based practice. This emphasis on positive working chimes well with current ‘Child First’ thinking, which the Youth Justice Board (YJB) has declared their ‘strategic approach and central guiding principle’ (YJB, 2021, p 10). But how much is ‘desistance’ really understood by those at the coalface of youth justice delivery – practitioners? Its conceptualisation does not seem to be fully accepted or agreed upon by the different agencies of youth justice, potentially causing confusion ‘on the ground’. This lack of clarity, compounded by YJB training being provided only on a cascade basis, where a few centrally trained staff members ‘cascade’ training to their team, seems to have resulted in practitioners feeling ill-equipped to translate the model of desistance being promoted by the YJB into practice. In this chapter, the YJB desistance model will be explored, alongside different conceptualisations of other agencies within the sector (particularly the sector inspectorates), with these different conceptualisations causing confusion in expectations for youth offending teams (YOTs) tasked with making it reality. Analysis of feedback from YOT practitioners after being given further specific training on desistance in youth justice, provided over the past seven years, indicates where their confusions lie and where they still perceive the barriers to desistance-friendly working with justice-involved children to be. This will inform recommendations for how the sector could better conceptualise and operationalise desistance in youth justice.

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The purpose of this chapter is to explore children’s involvement in the design and delivery of youth justice services, which offers insight into how practitioners can promote children’s voices to enable desistance. The chapter will critically discuss how and why an increased focus on participatory practices in youth justice has prompted efforts to challenge power inequalities and tokenistic practices between children and professionals. Crucially, it is argued that children need to occupy a level of influence over the agenda-setting and decision-making within youth justice service processes. The chapter then proceeds to offer insight into the purpose and key features of peer support and mentorship as a form of participation which can enable desistance. This involves young people being recruited and trained to undertake peer support roles in which they can motivate, inspire, educate and advise others by sharing their lived experiences of system contact. The authors of this chapter draw on desistance literature when offering insight into how peer-led practice can be viewed as a type of pro-social approach. Following this, the chapter explores the extent to which peer-led participatory practices can be a useful mechanism to facilitate processes of desistance.

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