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“Large, unpleasant thugs”? Criminal responsibility and young people in France and the United Kingdom

Abstract : In an attempt to tackle not just youth crime itself, but also the causes of youth crime, the New Labour administration sought to combat social exclusion. It consequently set up a number of social intervention projects such as Sure Start in the most deprived areas of Britain, promised to abolish child poverty before 2010, invested heavily in education, and attempted to reduce the number of unemployed young people via its New Deal for Young People. For the first time, the Youth Justice Board, a special committee charged with overseeing the youth justice system and coordinating social and criminal justice services, was established. A social work approach was to be combined with punishment. Yet, despite these attempt to promote the social inclusion of British youths, in practice they have been ‘demonised'. According to the British press, young people are out-of-control, antisocial and violent. The recent ‘moral panic' (Cohen, 2001) concerning knife crime seemed to confirm the idea that young people are a threat to society. Even the former justice minister, Jack Straw, declared that most young people who find themselves in prison are not children but ‘large, unpleasant thugs' who frighten the general public. Whilst young people have often been the focus of moral panics (Pearson, 1983), it is only recently that panic has been met with such a punitive response which has led to an 800% increase in the number of young people incarcerated since 1992. Despite attempts to adapt the system of juvenile justice to young people, they are increasingly treated like adults. Indeed, the New Labour government's first White Paper on the subject was entitled No More Excuses and the government pledged to eliminate the ‘excuse culture' which supposedly dominated the youth justice system. Consequently, there has been a ‘dejeuvenalisation' of youth justice policy (Pitts, 2001), marking a rupture with the policy of diversion of youths from the adult justice system which had dominated the criminal justice system since at least the middle of the 19th Century. Similar trends are identifiable in France where there has recently been an erosion of the ordonnance 1945 principle that young people cannot be help fully responsible for their criminal actions. A 2002 law (la loi d'orientation et de programmation pour la justice du 9 septembre) fixes the age of criminal responsibility at 13, leading some experts to speak of the notions of ‘premajority'. As in the UK, the rhetoric of responsibilisation has been adopted by Nicolas Sarkozy who has described young people in the criminal justice system as ‘black giants from the inner cities'. This paper seeks to determine if the hardening of attitudes to young offenders in France and England can be explained by the same factors. It is a knee-jerk response to moral panic of can it be explained by other socio-economic factors common to the two cultures?
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Emma Bell. “Large, unpleasant thugs”? Criminal responsibility and young people in France and the United Kingdom. Revue française de civilisation britannique, CRECIB - Centre de recherche et d'études en civilisation britannique, 2009, vol. XV (n° 3), pp.115-132. ⟨halshs-00496707⟩

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