The Important Balance of Youth Justice

The Important Balance of Youth Justice

There has been significant attention given recently to the sentencing of a young man who (at 17 years of age), whilst driving dangerously and under the influence of alcohol and drugs, killed a young couple and their unborn child.

A tragic event such as this has catastrophic and lifelong impacts on everyone associated with the matter, whether that be the victims, their friends or families but also the perpetrator.

As the sentencing judge indicated, no sentence will ever be adequate and cannot do justice to the suffering caused. Unfortunately, nothing can ever undo the events of that day.

With that in mind, the court was faced with sentencing a young person who was only 17 at the time of the offending. The court heard of the extremely unfortunate and tragic events of his own upbringing, one that included neglect, exposure to domestic violence and abuse and early exposure to illicit substances.

It is in the context of a terrible upbringing with a clear lack of positive guidance, together with the immaturity and recklessness that comes with being a 17-year-old, that these tragic events have unfolded.

A judge must balance these factors when assessing a proper penalty that not only punishes this (or any) young person for these terrible acts but also offers an opportunity to rehabilitate and become a contributing member of society.

Thankfully we are not a society that will simply lock the door and throw away the key – giving up on any person who falls foul of the law. There are countless redemption stories of people who have been punished for terrible behaviours, to flourish after having served their punishments.

As a society, we shouldn’t forget that people make mistakes and not all mistakes are equal. Studies show that young males are particularly poor decision-makers and this combined with the difficult upbringing of this young man resulted in this most tragic event. 

The sentence imposed in this case was 10 years imprisonment. There is widespread reporting that he was sentenced to 6 years – this is incorrect. The sentencing judge allowed the young man to apply to the parole board to be released after 6 years, but that is no guarantee to occur and is a decision for the parole board.

The judge was not permitted to impose a sentence any longer than 10 years unless the court found the offence to be particularly heinous in all the circumstances. A classic example of this would be premeditated murder.

The offender did not enter a plea of guilty to murder, and by accepting his plea to manslaughter, the prosecutions accepted he did not intend to kill the victims. That is not an issue for the Youth Justice Act or the courts to deal with – that was accepted by prosecutions. 

It is common for the public to look at a matter such as this and think sentencing laws ought to be tougher. However, without a proper understanding of the factual matters of the offending, the personal matters of the offender as well as sentencing principles, it is unfair to criticise the system.

We have all been young and most of us have family and friends who have or will go through our teenage years when decision-making is often questionable. If your loved one caused a terrible tragedy such as this, I am sure opinions would be very different.

It would not be in the societies best interests to incarcerate young people for decades. What do we expect will happen when they are eventually released, with no prospects/education or qualifications? 

One mistake, even those that lead to horrible and tragic outcomes, should not cause a person to be punished beyond rehabilitation or hope.