Childhood is a time of promise, of potential, of possibilities. Children are nascent, evolving, malleable individuals shaped by their experiences and their interactions. With the support and guidance of adults, children can become active citizens who have positive life experiences and positive contributions to make to society. They are, after all, the next generation. So with this in mind, why is it that when children break the law, we treat them so appallingly? Why does children’s offending behaviour, however trivial or fleeting, suddenly dictate that we label them as offenders, as dangerous, as imminent harms to themselves and to others – as a collection of risks that adults must manage through punishment and excessive intervention? Why do we assign children full responsibility for their actions when they offend, yet many of those same children are not given the responsibility to vote, to have sex, to drive a car, to drink, to smoke, to buy a house? Offending behaviour seems to catalyse a series of contradictions in our perceptions and treatment of children, exemplified by this sudden onset of responsibility for their actions. The most striking contradiction is how our views of children shift almost immediately from positive, optimistic and nurturing to negative, pessimistic and controlling should they break the law or present as if they might break the law in the future (Case and Haines 2009).

Out with the new, in with the old

Out goes the potential for citizenship and in comes the potential for harm, measured ‘scientifically’ through a restrictive and retrospective risk assessment and intervention framework known as the ‘Scaled Approach’. Out goes viewing children as bundles of dynamic possibilities and in comes viewing children as bundles of deficits and flaws. Out goes looking forwards positively at what children might become and in comes looking backwards negatively at what children might destroy. Out goes putting children first and in comes dealing with offenders first (Haines and Case 2015). Helpless and needy children become feckless and risky ‘little adults’ in the blink of an eye. The Youth Justice System has developed an unhealthy obsession with prevention – with stopping, controlling, managing and reducing negative behaviours, negative outcomes and negative possibilities (risks) of future negative behaviours and outcomes! The inevitable results are negative perceptions of children and an irresistible impetus for adults to intervene fast, hard and frequently to prevent and correct these negatives. The dangers of this prevention-obsessed approach are very real – the exclusion, marginalisation, stigmatisation and further criminalisation of children. When did we stop treating children as children?

Children first positive promotion in the Youth Justice System

What is needed is a children first approach to delivering youth justice that treats offending as a small and normal part of a much broader childhood identity (Haines and Case 2015). We must stop trying to prevent, target and correct the negatives in ‘flawed’ children and instead prioritise the promotion of positive behaviours and positive outcomes for all children, including those who become embroiled in the Youth Justice System (Haines and Case 2015; Case and Haines 2015a). This includes diverting children from the Youth Justice System in the first place! We must prioritise children’s rights and entitlements to universal supports, services, guidance and opportunities. We must prioritise children’s engagement, participation and inclusion in youth justice processes and those outside of the system (Case and Haines 2015b). We must prioritise the engagement of key adults such as youth justice staff, parents and teachers in facilitating these rights and entitlements. The treatment of children who offend must be legitimate (moral, fair, justified) and focused on children’s best interests. A principled and progressive Youth Justice System is one that prioritises positive promotion over negative prevention.


Case, S.P. and Haines, K. R. (2015a) Children First, Offenders Second Positive Promotion: Reframing the Prevention Debate. Youth Justice Journal.

Case, S.P. and Haines, K.R. (2015b) Children First, Offenders Second: The centrality of engagement in positive youth justice. The Howard Journal of Criminal Justice.

Case, S.P. and Haines, K.R. (2009) Understanding youth offending: Risk factor research policy and practice. Cullompton: Willan.

Haines, K.R. and Case, S.P. (in press) Positive Youth Justice: Children First, Offenders Second. Bristol: Policy Press.

This blog was authored by Professor Kevin Haines and Dr Stephen Case and was originally posted on the NoOffence website.  The original post can be viewed here.

March 16th, 2015

Posted In: Youth Justice

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