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Young Offenders' Perceptions of their Experiences in the Criminal Justice System


This study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, investigated young offenders' perceptions of their experiences in the youth justice system. Such an understanding is essential in a rapidly developing system that relies on offenders interpreting the messages from judicial process in order to achieve the policy objective of reducing crime. Increasingly, youth crime is at the forefront of the political agenda. Recent innovations have specifically intended to ensure that young offenders accept the seriousness of, and responsibility for, their crimes (e.g. 'reparation schemes', which encourage the offender to 'make amends'). In practice, however, we know little about how young people interpret the sentences they receive in court. The project filled a critical gap in the research literature by determining how young people perceive their engagement with the youth justice system, providing up-to-date information in this under-researched area.

What did the research focus on?

The research focussed on the way young people interpret their experiences, their place and their responsibilities in the criminal justice system. The research had two main stages:

1. The first ever review of research dealing with young offenders' understanding and experiences of juvenile justice systems within and beyond the United Kingdom. What could international research tell us about how young people experience youth justice? Could the research provide useful lessons for the development of policy and practice?

2. An empirical examination of young offenders' views of the youth justice system in England and Wales, with a particular focus on (a) their experiences, and (b) the purpose of their disposals. What effects did they believe their experiences have had on their attitudes and behaviour? Did any procedures have counter-productive, negative effects? Did young people interpret disposals in the spirit they were intended by the judiciary and by youth justice professionals?

What did the research involve?

The international research review involved a systematic search of articles, books and reports, primarily through computer databases. Primary sources included specialist legal and children's rights agencies, internet based research 'clearinghouses', social policy libraries, and our international contacts in the field of youth justice. The empirical study involved face-to-face in-depth qualitative interviews with 37 young offenders aged between 12 and 17 years. Some offenders were the recipients of custodial sentences, and a further group had been given a community disposal involving 'reparation'. The interviews took place towards the end of the young people's sentences, to allow them to reflect on the course of their experiences. The sample was recruited from the case loads of four Youth Offending Teams, based in London and South East England. The interviews were contextualised by comparing them with case information from a number of sources, including telephone interviews with youth justice workers, pre-sentence reports and post-court reports.

Timescale and final products of the research

The project ran for 18 months, from January 2001 to June 2002. A final report to the ESRC was submitted in Summer 2002. We are also committed to targeted dissemination of our work, in order to contribute to policy debates and to the development of good practice.

The full report and research summary are available on the web at:

Research Report:

Research Summary:

See Publications for further details.

Last updated November 2003