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Report of the Departmental Committee on the Treatment of Young Offenders. Cmd. 2831. 1927.


INCE the early days of the nineteenth century the people of this country have been engaged in amending their criminal law on certain easily definable lines with a deliberation which it may be hoped has its advantages since it seems to be inevitable, though it may be regarded as excessive. The last link in the chain that has thus been gradually forged since the time of Romilly, if not of Howard, is now provided by the recently published report of a Departmental Committee on the Treatment of Young Offenders, which is of the first importance to the numerous persons who are interested in the prevention of crime by punishment or otherwise, and who occupy positions of all degrees of responsibility, or no responsibility at all. Its scope is very wide, its substance bears constant signs of compromise, and it suffers from the defects characteristic of multiple authorship; but the Commissioners have spared no pains to make their enquiries complete, and in almost all cases have worked out their conclusions to completeness. If, therefore, the report is not epoch-making and contains no new principles to guide future action, it is invaluable as recording the stage that has been reached in one particular direction, and as indicating how accepted principles may best be applied in the immediate future.

The problem that the committee had to solve was how best to prevent young persons-practically those below the age of 21— from descending the short and steep slope that begins with childish misdeeds and ends with almost hopeless criminality. Of the importance of this problem there can be no question, and the modern organization of public education offers opportunities for its satisfactory solution such as have never existed before.

The foundation of the treatment of young offenders lies in the Juvenile Court, and this is a matter on which, beyond all others, the committee speaks with authority. It is therefore a cause for satisfaction that the first point on which the committee lays stress is that the development of the Juvenile Court" should proceed on existing lines without any change of legal principle,"

and that "the Juvenile Court should not cease to be a court of justice." The result is that Juvenile Courts will continue to be something that the general public are familiar with and trust with a well-founded confidence.

As regards the constitution of these courts it is not perhaps necessary to dwell on the suggestion that members of the court should continue their work only so long as they retain in full vigour those qualities of mind and body that are necessary for its performance, for the same things might be said of other courts. The further recommendation, that the choice of magistrates "should in no case be narrowed by considerations of the political party to which a person belongs," withdraws a curtain, behind which it is perhaps better not to look. Of more interest is the suggestion-theoretically a revolutionary one-that the court should generally consist of three, and never more than five magistrates. If such a rule can be enforced it will certainly add to the dignity of the court. Of ordinary courts it has been observed that when magistrates attend occasionally they usually do so for improper reasons. But there is no doubt that Juvenile Courts will do their work better if the magistrates are few in number, though it may well be doubted if a panel of five will in fact ensure an attendance of three. The committee might also have added that no court can work well unless the attendance of individuals is constant, and that no magistrate should be considered competent for a Juvenile Court who does not take every possible advantage of his or her position to see as much as possible of the work of ordinary courts. The last point is important, because any kind of judging is lonely work. A barrister who proceeds from the Bar to the Bench leaves one of the most conversational occupations in the world for a position where conversation hardly exists a County Court judge can never hope to compare his methods of doing his work with those of his colleagues, and six months after he has begun his work every practitioner on his circuit should have grown familiar with all his main characteristics. Previous experience may, and often does, enable a judge to meet these difficulties. . But, if three justices constantly work together in a juvenile court they are certain to contract habits of thought and action from which only an attendance at courts operating on a somewhat wider scale offers any hope of escape. Specialist magistrates appear to be VOL. 246. NO. 502.


favoured in the United States, where the work of a juvenile court is expected to take the whole time of one judge, and they push the principle so far as to have special judges dealing with "domestic relations" and traffic. But such a system is not consistent with English traditions, and the committee have not thought it worth while to notice it.

One of the most important features of juvenile courts is that they are not public. This is specially provided for in the Children Act, and the committee would, apparently, like to make them more private than they in fact are. At present no one has a right to be present, except members and officers of the court, the parties, their solicitors and counsel, other persons concerned in the case, and representatives of newspapers. This is a departure from the principles on which ordinary courts of justice act, and always have acted, which may be considered a "fundamental change of legal principle," such as the committee deprecate. One of the reasons why English courts generally are as much trusted as they are is that many people see them actually at work, and anyone can do so at any moment that he wishes. If any particular court withdraws itself from the public, may not a conclusion be drawn, however falsely, that there is something to conceal?

Any court of justice ought to be a school of good manners and fair dealing, often carried on in circumstances where they are particularly needed. To these lessons a juvenile court is to add the maxima reverentia pueris which the commission are among the first to uphold. What better school of manners could there be? And why should it carry on its work in seclusion? Then, too, the presence, or the possible presence, of the public exercises an influence, and probably a wholesome influence on the Bench. If no strangers can be present a magistrate is always tempted to regard himself as an official rather than as a judge, and to give the go-by to those fundamental legal principles that it is his duty to preserve. Those who have had to administer justice in places where public opinion does not exist, or is of such a kind that no account is to be taken of it, know only too well how hard it is to find a substitute for the kind of opinion that can express itself in numberless ways about, say, the justices of any Petty Sessional Division. It is largely this kind of opinion that has made British justice what it is, and it may well do serious injury

to juvenile courts hereafter, if they are to be withdrawn from its influence. Practically, juvenile courts are not likely to be troubled with a large attendance of the public. It is conceded that they are to be held rather in such rooms as may be obtainable rather than in ordinary courts. The accommodation for the public will, therefore, always be narrowly limited; but there is all the difference between some and none.

Closely connected with the question of publicity of the proceedings in a Juvenile Court is that of the language to be used in its procedure. The committee consider that the terms "conviction" and "sentence" should no longer be used, being of opinion that young offenders suffer in after-life from having a "conviction" recorded against them, and are prevented by its existence from entering a career for which they are eminently fitted. It is to be regretted that the report does not give the facts on which this opinion is based. Legally a previous conviction may in arbitrarily chosen circumstances lead to punishments which are now obsolete. Practically it seems that it may prevent a boy entering the navy or being sent to some of the Dominions; it certainly does not prevent a boy entering the army, a learned profession, a university, or, what is perhaps of more practical importance, a trade union. Of the navy, perhaps it is better to say nothing; but it is hardly likely that a Dominion will ignore a change of language, and it is as easy to ask if a boy has had an order made regarding him by a Juvenile Court, as it is to ask if he has been convicted. It is to be hoped that persons acting for the Dominions may be induced to consider rather what kind of boy a would-be immigrant is when he wishes to emigrate, than what it was proved that he did some years before. But a change of language is not in itself likely to encourage this attitude. On the other hand, if the same language is used about a child who is boarded-out because he has a home that is worse than none, and a boy who has committed a serious offence when he was anything below 17, this will not be to the advantage of the child. The committee in this case, as well as in others, seem to place undue reliance on the benefits to be derived from confused language, and to forget that where there is a difference there should be a distinction.

Other proposals made by the committee are of more import-
In the first place, it is proposed that the age of persons


over whom a Juvenile Court has jurisdiction should be raised from 16 to 17. This the public will probably accept on the authority of the committee. Secondly, it is proposed that the right now possessed by the parents of a child below 14, charged with an indictable offence, to have the child tried by a jury, that is, at Quarter Sessions or Assizes, should be taken away, and that such children should be finally dealt with by a Juvenile Court. Theoretically this is, as the report points out, an inroad on an existing legal principle of the first importance. Practically it will make but little difference in an overwhelming majority of cases. Nevertheless the rule that in all but quite trivial cases an accused person has a right to be tried by a jury is so essential to all criminal procedure that an exception to it will properly be regarded with suspicion, and the matter obviously needs further consideration. The proposal would be more acceptable if the Juvenile Court was not a narrowly constituted and secret tribunal, and if it were certain that the order of the court was subject to appeal, as it is stated to be by the report; though, how there can be an appeal without a conviction, by whatever name it may be called, is not plain, and no appeal that will bring the case before a jury is contemplated.

With the Juvenile Court duly constituted and provided with a procedure that it can understand, the practical question arises— What is to be done with the person below 21 who has committed an offence punishable by law? A rough idea of the numbers concerned is always useful in considering such matters. In round figures a little over 2000 persons under 21 were sent to prison in 1925-26, and 500 to Borstal institutions in 1925. Dealing with persons below 16, the Juvenile Courts had 27,000 cases before them, of which 10,000 were withdrawn, dismissed, or were such that no further action was considered necessary; 7000 resulted in fines; 2000 in recognisances; 6000 in probation; 1000 in committals to industrial schools or to reformatories. The chief effort of the committee has been to devise means by which the 2000 persons sent to prison may be otherwise dealt with. There can be no doubt as to the soundness of this point of view. It has been truly observed that the worst use you can make of a man is to imprison him, and no arguments are needed to show that this applies particularly to young persons who have still to decide what kind of people they hope ultimately to be.

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