Supporting young offenders in the courtroom

Nicola Brace

The Open University

For a long time the NSPCC has highlighted the need for a justice system that is fit for children and last year, three months after they launched their Order in Court campaign, the Government announced a series of changes. One of these changes included the promise to double the number of registered intermediaries to help certain individuals testify in court. Their role is to assist victims and witnesses who are children or who have mental health issues, physical disabilities or learning difficulties. Registered intermediaries are professional communications specialists, accredited by the Ministry of Justice, who help those individuals understand what is being asked of them and communicate their replies.

NSPCC Campaign

This is an image from the NSPCC campaign highlighting the lack of registered intermediaries for children who give evidence in court

The court intermediary service was introduced under the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999, and it was aimed at assisting vulnerable witnesses for the prosecution and for the defence, but not the accused. Although the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 permits examination of a vulnerable defendant through an intermediary in England and Wales, according to the website ‘The Advocate’s Gateway’ this provision is not yet in force. Despite this the website reports an increase in the number of trials where judges allow an intermediary to assist defendants. A recent example is the murder trial involving two teenage girls reported in the news in early April this year, with one article stating that an intermediary was present throughout the trial to help them understand what was being said in the courtroom.

Advocates Gateway

The Advocate’s Gateway is hosted by the Advocacy Training Council and provides guidance based on evidence that relates to vulnerable witnesses and defendants

 Contribution from Speech and Language Therapists

The absence of a statutory provision regarding intermediaries for vulnerable defendants is worrying given the growing evidence of speech and language communication difficulties among children who offend. For example, in 2007 Karen Bryan and colleagues randomly selected 58 young offenders aged 15-18 years, and found that 66-90% had below average language skills and 62% failed to achieve the level of literacy normally expected by 11 years of age. In a subsequent study they reported that 65% of 72 young offenders had language difficulties, with 20% assessed as ‘severely delayed’. These difficulties cover all aspects of communication including expressing themselves through speaking and writing, understanding the spoken and written word, as well as using and understanding non-verbal communication. Another study showed that many young offenders could not define or describe the type of words they will hear in the courtroom, such as ‘penalty’, ‘verify’ and ‘caution’.

At present we do not have evidence that explores the relationship between offending and communication difficulties over a period of time, but it is likely that both language difficulties and youth offending are the outcomes of a set of environmental and biological adversities. There is a high prevalence of other difficulties, including learning disabilities and histories of maltreatment among this group. Furthermore, young offenders coming from low (poor) socio-economic backgrounds are overrepresented, and there is evidence suggesting a link between poor communication skills and social disadvantage, with between 40% and 56% of children from disadvantaged backgrounds showing language delay when starting school.

Another important aspect to consider is that young offenders with speech, language and communication difficulties will have struggled throughout their school years, and their inability to respond to verbal demands in the classroom may have been misinterpreted by teachers as rudeness or disinterest, which in turn may have led to lowered expectations and an underestimation of their academic potential.  When interviewed, young offenders have reported feeling frustrated at school when they did not understand some of the words used by teachers or textbooks. It is not a surprising therefore that Karen Bryan and colleagues found a large majority had stopped attending school before reaching 16 years of age. The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists has sought to raise awareness of the important role speech and language therapists can play, both in identifying the precise needs of young offenders and offering therapy interventions. As these interventions improve the verbal communication skills of the young offenders, they are then able to access the rehabilitation and treatment programmes that help prevent and reduce re-offending.

Training opportunities

Legislation is not yet in force to ensure that vulnerable defendants have the same access to court intermediaries as vulnerable victims and witnesses. Therefore, given the language that is routinely used in the courtroom, some young defendants may fail to understand or follow the court proceedings. Recently, training opportunities have been developed for anyone communicating with young offenders. The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists has developed a training programme called The Box, which is designed to help those working within the criminal justice system, including court staff and Crown Prosecution Service staff. Not only will users learn how to spot people with communication needs, they will also find out how to work more effectively with them. The programme includes an e-learning module, a two-day course and a screening tool. The Advocate’s Gateway has recently released new toolkits that focus on the difficulties that can arise when questioning a vulnerable witness or defendant, including how to question someone with a ‘hidden’ disability such as language impairment. This comprises advice on using concrete words, about keeping questions simple in structure and the problems of using negative and passive language in questions. Hopefully, those working within the criminal justice system will avail themselves of these training opportunities.



Occupying Turin: refugees breathe life into abandoned buildings of Olympic village

Victoria Canning, The Open University and Evgenia Iliadou, The Open University

Arriving at the Olympic Village in Turin, the stage for the 2006 Winter Olympics, it is easy to guess which buildings have been maintained as student houses and youth hostels, and which have been occupied by refugees. The peeling blue and grey paint is visible evidence of Olympic enthusiasm turned to detachment.

Since 2013, four of the seemingly unkempt towers which stretch across this side of the city have been occupied by up to 1,400 people from around 30 countries.

Italy faced the sharp end of the 2008 global financial crisis. As a result, welfare was stunted and unemployment in some regions has surged. So it is, perhaps, understandable that there are limited financial resources to provide support for new arrivals. But concerns about Italy’s response to refugees extend beyond the financial. In the face of rising numbers of migrants, Italy has struggled to maintain humane conditions for these people.

Indeed, at the end of 2015, Médecins sans Frontières announced that it would cease work in migrant reception centres in Pozzallo, Sicily and the southern province of Ragusa, as a protest against the authorities’ failure to improve conditions. Centres are often overcrowded, unsanitary and provide little legal advice or options for activities.

In other areas of Italy, EU efforts to reduce migrant intakes include increasing deportations from so-called “hotspots”, and in some cases, riot police have been dispatched to deal with xenophobic violence against refugees, who are blamed for crime.

One of the occupied buildings.
Author provided.

The occupation of Turin’s Olympic Village is not exempt from such problems: since January 2015, authorities have been trying to evict refugees – a case which remains at court. An informal border surrounds the four buildings; police maintain watch from 8am to 8pm, and the marines patrol the area four times a day.

But this is more like a sideways glance than heavy surveillance; especially compared with the scrutiny faced by migrants in other European countries including Britain and Greece.

Peaceful coexistence

But despite the legal challenges to the occupation in Turin, and moments of spontaneous unrest, there seems a mutual tolerance between the police and local government, the students and hostellers, and the refugees. Broadly speaking, these neighbours coexist peacefully. Problems that arise between refugees and local residents of each building are discussed and resolved in meetings held every month.

Unlike the Afghani, Syrian, Pakistani, Kurdish and Iraqi refugees arriving in Greece, most of those in Turin have fled North and Sub-Saharan Africa. This reflects Italy’s own geographical position, sandwiched between Northern Europe and North African countries such as Libya, the target of NATO airstrikes in 2011.

The people who we spoke to were from Chad, Algeria, Libya and South Sudan: countries caught in revolution or at war. Most have made their way to Turin through the Central Mediterranean route, from Tunisia or Libya to southern Italy. More than 100 lives have been lost on the route this year alone.

Yet within the four damp-ridden buildings of Turin’s Olympic Village, refugees have managed to develop two small shops selling African and Italian foods, a pop-up barbershop complete with multiple mirrors and music, a Senegalese restaurant, and perhaps most impressively “La Scuola” (the school): a classroom stocked with books, a chalkboard and mismatched tables and chairs.

La scuola.
Author provided.

People come here to socialise and learn Italian – a pastime that refugees teasingly suggest we might want to take up ourselves, as we struggle through conversations with pigeon phrases.

Tolerance, acceptance and rights

As migrant rights researchers and activists based in Britain and Greece, it doesn’t escape our attention that this kind of autonomy would not necessarily be possible for refugees elsewhere. As the EU begins to deport migrants from its shores under a new deal with Turkey, Greece continues to bear the greatest responsibility for those who arrive in Europe seeking a new life. As a result, the number and size of refugee camps across Lesvos, and the occupation of public spaces and abandoned buildings in Athens, are on the rise – as is the policing of such spaces.

The occupation of public buildings is formally illegal under Greek Law. These “illegal” settlements are tolerated by authorities to some extent; it serves their purpose to conceal the state’s stunted response behind the vital support offered by local and international activists who work there.

But the new plans, following the agreement of the EU-Turkey deal, include that all new irregular migrants crossing from Turkey into Greek islands from March 20, 2016 will be returned to Turkey as well as the evacuation of all camps on the Greek islands, something that demonstrates how quickly the state can become intolerant of such initiatives.

Indeed, a similar phenomenon can be observed in “the Jungle” of Calais – an informal camp for migrants and refugees. The area has been allowed to grow and then partially demolished several times over the course of the last decade, much to the distress of those who are living there.

And British laws against squatting are even more restrictive. Refugees’ occupation of state-owned territory would be a short story in Britain, more likely to end with a prison sentence, deportation – or both – than a school and a hair salon.

A mutual tolerance of shared spaces has made it possible for refugees in Turin’s Olympic village to find some modicum of stability in their daily lives. It is by no means ideal; tolerance is not acceptance, nor does it guarantee support or the observance of human rights. But in the face of increasingly restrictive border controls, the growing hostility of the European public and the continual erosion of refugee rights, it’s astounding to witness what the residents of Turin’s Olympic village have accomplished.

The Conversation

Victoria Canning, Lecturer in Criminology and Social Policy , The Open University and Evgenia Iliadou, PhD student, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.