Rolled scrollShould under-18s convicted of a criminal offence ever be named?

A report published this month, suggests that the Government should consider convicted children and young people should never be named. This is the only proposal reported in today’s Times, despite the fact that it is paragraph 107 of a 171-paragraph report and, indeed, despite the fact that it isn’t a proposal – only a suggestion for consideration.

The current situation is that under-18s have automatic anonymity in magistrate’s courts and discretionary anonymity in Crown courts, although they may be named whilst the crime is under investigation and once they become 18, even if the conviction is spent.

As I write, the general view of below-the-liners is of the “political-correctness-gone-mad” variety.

The article quotes various statistics which, interestingly do not form part of the report’s case for reviewing current practice. Statistics not quoted are that youth offending fell by 79% between 2007 and 2015 and that the number of under-18s in custody fell from 2,909 to 900 in the same period.

Is there any evidence?

Is there any evidence that this change in policy will have any impact on re-offending rates?

Is there a  difference in re-offending between, say, Australia and New Zealand – broadly similar countries with similar legal system to ours, but  which have different anonymity policies? And if there is a difference, can it be attributed to naming/ not naming or to other factors?

Of the 67% of young offenders who re-offend within a year, what proportion have been publicly named? If those who are named offend more often than those who don’t, then there might be an case for changing the law, but as only a small percentage are ever named, the data seems pretty skewed to begin with.

If there is data to support the argument for or against publicity, then go with the data. My guess is that most teenage offenders would be indifferent to publicity or revel in a perverse sort of celebrity-status.

Is there another argument?

The truth is that this is a moral question – neatly highlighted by MP Philip Hollobone’s  phrase “the public wants to know and the public has a right to know”. Of course the public wants to know – but does the public benefit from knowing?

The cases quoted – Mary Bell, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson are exceptional. Children of 10 and 11 who commit murder are mercifully rare – their crimes are doubly shocking and troubling because their victims are invariably children and because they fly in the face of our concept of childhood.  The very rarity of such cases means that they shouldn’t be used as the basis of policy.

Of the majority – if they go on to commit other crimes, then their names will be put in the public domain in any case – if not, then they should be allowed to move on into adult life without the stigma of youthful convictions.

Anonymity doesn’t affect the power of the courts to sentence or to impose post-release restrictions – neither does it amount to “secret justice”.

Review of the Youth Justice System in England and Wales (Charlie Taylor, December 2016) 

The government response to Charlie Taylor’s Review of the Youth Justice System (MoJ, December 2016)