Experiencing Youth Justice and Penality

Siobhan McAlister, Nicola Carr

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


Much of the recent literature on youth justice has focused on administrative aspects of the system and the socio-political contexts that have led to the ‘production’ of the youthful offender as a subject and locus of intervention. This has largely been driven by the extent to which youth justice has been crafted as a distinct penal sphere, evident in its unyoking from universal children’s services (Muncie and Goldson, 2013) and the establishment of separate agencies to administer and govern this ‘system’ (Souhami, 2014). Driven by policy hyperactivity and a plethora of legislation expanding the reach of the system, for much of the 1990s and 2000s increasing numbers of young people were brought under its gaze.

Particular attention has been paid to the impact of neo-liberal governance on the discourses, rationales and philosophies underpinning contemporary youth justice policy and practice. Writing specifically in the English and Welsh context, several authors have identified that the resulting ‘system’ embodies multiple, contradictory and competing discourses (Muncie, 2006; Fergusson, 2007; Gray, 2013). Within this ‘melting pot’ Fergusson (2007) notes the disjuncture between policy rhetoric, implementation and lived experience and Phoenix (2015) argues that systems-based analyses, much in favour amongst academics, foreclose a wider consideration of questions of what ‘justice’ actually means.

Recent attention towards the perspectives of practitioners working in this sphere has pointed to greater nuances than broader penal narratives suggest (see: Field, 2007; Briggs, 2013; Gray, 2013; Kelly and Armitage, 2015). Yet similar attention has not been given to experiences of youth justice (for an exception see – Phoenix and Kelly, 2013). However, it is precisely young people’s experiences, which would add significantly to current knowledge and potentially bridge the gap between discussions about penal philosophies, how youth justice policies are framed, how they are enacted and how they are experienced.

This chapter provides an overview of recent developments in the field of youth justice and penality in the United Kingdom. The chapter argues that a theoretical focus on macro-level trends (Hannah-Moffat and Lynch, 2012), alongside a narrowly defined research agenda, have largely excluded young people’s experiences of justice and punishment from contemporary analysis. Drawing on young people experiences of different aspects of youth justice in Northern Ireland and beyond, the chapter illuminates what a close understanding of lived experience can add to knowledge. In particular it demonstrates that the effects of interventions can be different to their aims and intentions; and that re-instating the youth experience can add support to calls for greater attention to wider issues of social justice.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRoutledge Handbook of Youth and Young Adulthood
Place of PublicationLondon
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2017


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