A critical comparison of the Youth Justice Service in England and Wales and the Juvenile Justice System in South Africa in relation to Social Work practice

We were delighted to award Yvonne Rusere of Coventry University the Critical Writing Prize 2017 in the social work category. Her winning essay is set out below.

The Youth Justice Service from here on referred to as the YJS in England and Wales and the Juvenile Justice System from here on referred to as the JJS in South Africa have gone through radical transformations over the decades. While the former has over the years arguably evolved from crime to social care, the latter has tentatively been born out of a country torn apart by apartheid with engrained ideologies of an in-built criminal identity in delinquent youth deserving only custody as deterrence. The evolution of both systems has been ongoing for decades but for the purpose of this essay we shall focus on the period between 1990 and 2000, the main reason for looking at this particular period is because both countries witnessed significant political changes and significant social events that influenced the direction of the progression of both services during this period. In South Africa the African National Congress government under Nelson Mandela came into power in 1994 and in England and Wales the New Labour government under Tony Blair came into power in 1997. Firstly we will present a brief historical context of social work practice within both systems pre-1990, secondly we will critically compare and contrast how the political climate and globalisation influenced policy changes and lastly we will critically compare and contrast the impact of these changes on social work practices with particular focus on anti-oppressive practice in both countries.

Social Work in South Africa was founded on apartheid ideologies in the depression of the 1930’s; it continued to operate under those ideologies until the launch of The National Association of Social Workers, South Africa in 2007 (Sewpaul, 2012). Prior to 1994 services were rendered on racial lines with social workers working in both non-governmental and religious based organisations not spared from these oppressive policies (Sewpaul, 2012). To put things into perspective examples of discrepancies in welfare provision along racial lines include how the blacks would receive their welfare benefits every other month while the whites and Indians got theirs monthly, the blacks received their allowances via mobile sites i.e. schools, under trees or  in shops while the whites were paid by check in banks and post offices (Brown & Neku, 2005). Moreover legislation then instructed that a social worker was only allowed to provide services to clients that were classified as the same race as them (Sewpaul, 2012). Working under such an oppressive regime it is difficult to fathom how social workers could have been the voice of the oppressed when they themselves were oppressed.

Professional social work associations during this time were at loggerheads with some participating in resistance social work whilst some argued that resistance was the equivalent of ‘biting the hand that feeds you’ (Sewpaul, 2012). Indeed this dilemma of the role of the social worker as an agent of the state and an advocate and champion of human rights is not unique to South Africa alone. Critics have for decades argued that the state cannot be the upholder of human rights as in most cases it is at the forefront of oppressing human rights (Reichert, 2013). Cowden & Singh (2010) argue that if indeed the state is responsible for upholding and oppressing human rights simultaneously then ‘all social work intervention becomes either impossible or oppressive’ (p 5) and the aforementioned practice of social work pre 1990 in South Africa is a testament to this assertion. Most impacted by the aforementioned dilemma were JJS social workers who had to work as agents of the state whilst at the same time advocate for young offenders that were being persecuted by the state, facing predominately white magistrates and judges in a country that was being torn apart by racial tensions and wars (Lumbambu, 1997).

Meanwhile in England and Wales social work originated in the nineteenth century  in response to societal problems that were mainly precipitated by the industrial revolution (Jones, 2000). It can therefore be argued that social work had its roots in tackling poverty and charity work (Agnew, 2003). During the formation of the social work profession the role of social workers in the YJS was virtually non-existent until 1933 when The Children and Young Persons Act was passed, it required the courts to take into consideration the welfare of the child and also abolished the death penalty for anyone under the age of 18 (Woodward, 1982). It was around this time that social workers were slowly starting to infiltrate this sector as the social construction of childhood was being modified by society with the child now being recognised as needing more protection and nurturing. Burke (1974) argue that the incorporation of social workers into this field was a knee jerk reaction to the new act and not necessarily because a gap had been identified where the knowledge and expertise of a social worker was required, he may have been right as decades later the role of the social worker in youth justice is still surrounded by a cloud of uncertainty. Indeed the punitive environment of the justice service does not leave a lot of room for ‘justice and welfare’ advocates (Lewis, 2007). The Children Act 1989 heralded the start of a youth court that exclusively dealt with younger offenders under the age of 18 and it would seem at the turn of the decade significant positive changes were starting to take effect in England and Wales in regards to young offenders.

Meanwhile in South Africa the death of 13 year old Neville Snyman in 1992 was a huge turning point in the JJS; it triggered a chain of events in the evolution of the JJS (Sewpaul, 2012). Neville had been arrested along with his friends for stealing sweets and cold drinks; he was detained with other offenders under 21 and was beaten to death by his cellmates. The political climate was already charged during this time as the apartheid regime was drawing to an end.  As Holloway (2002 p4) states ‘It is from rage that thought is born, not from the pose of reason…’.  Tensions were high as black activists fought the system that criminalised young black boys and treated them like adult criminals for crimes as petty as stealing sweets. It is disappointing to note how the voice of the African Black Social Workers association was missing from this discourse and uprising as black social workers feared losing their jobs (Ncube, 2000).

Suffice to say the role of the JJS social worker had been very marginal with probation officers handling most of the cases and the argument could be JJS social workers might have felt like they had little to fight for as they were hardly recognised during this time. This was still the case as efforts to unify the Social Work Association of South Africa (Swasa) and the South African Black Social Workers Association (Sabswa) started in 1994 amid massive resistance from both sides who claimed to have histories to protect (Sewpaul, 2007). Eventually a unified National Association of Social Workers, South Africa was launched in 2007 and one of the major benefits of this was the acceptance of South African Social Workers into the International Federation of Social Workers. Certainly Neville’s death had set in motion a chain of events that would see a massive overhaul of the JJS.

On the other hand in England and Wales the death of two year old James Bulger, kidnapped and killed by two 10 year old boys triggered a different outcry from the media and the public, with calls for tougher sentences for young offenders.  Williams (2000) argues that the public outcry following James’s Bulger’s murder hardened political attitudes and was to influence policy for decades to come. This was evidenced by The Criminal Justice Act 1993 which gave the courts more discretion to impose tougher sentences. Indeed the 1997 white paper No More Excuses: A new approach to tackling youth crime in England and Wales which was published by the New Labour Government and had its emphasis on young offenders taking more responsibility for their actions can be argued to be evidence of the government adopting a punitive populism approach to tackling youth crime. During this time social work practice in the YJS was well established but even that could not stop the wave of punitive policies that were soon to be passed.

By 1997 in South Africa the new government had approved the use of generic social workers alongside probation officers within the JJS to act as advocates for young offenders and ensure that what happened to Neville Snyman in 1992 would not be repeated (Sewpaul, 2012). Whilst the developments in the JJS from 1997 onward were welcomed they presented a threat to the core values of social work practice in South Africa. For starters the new assessment was criticised for piling social workers with court administrative duties thereby cutting down the time for them to carry out more direct work with the young offenders. Gxubane (2012 p 12) argued that ‘The function of assessment is to inform and guide therapeutic interventions that will help the child offender not to come into conflict with the criminal justice system again’. In contrast JJS social workers found themselves carrying out assessments that were rigid, tick boxes and not incorporating their views and professional opinions. Konopka (1972 p 11) argued that ‘responsibility and social justice are key values that should inform the social work profession’. A juvenile justice social worker could only become effective once they realised that they were not only responsible to the offender they are working with but to the victim as well as the larger society. Sadly while the injection of social workers into the JJS was viewed as positive step, their knowledge and expertise was still profoundly lacking in the discourse that lead to policy change be it from a social or political context (Sloth-Nielsen, 2003). The question therefore became could JJS social workers effect any real change if their participation was lacking in policy development?

A year later in England and Wales The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 was introduced which stated the main aim of youth justice was to prevent offending. This led to the establishment of the Youth Justice Board the same year which was to monitor and police good practice (Fox & Arnull, 2013). Like in South Africa the role of the social worker within the YJS in England and Wales includes report writing, court officer and also supervising officer. At first glance it would seem a social worker within the YJS has strong influence over the sentencing of a young person by virtue of being involved in the court process via pre-sentencing reports and being in court during proceedings, however this is not always necessarily the case as punitive measures are always preferred over restorative and therapeutic measures. Fox & Arnull (2013 p 9) argue that ‘All Youth Offending Teams are required to employ a social worker, yet it is often a challenge to find space within youth justice practice to uphold social work values’.

It is interesting to note how the role of a social worker in South Africa has been slowly taken over by probation officers mirroring a pre-1997 scenario. Critics argue that social workers are viewed as not having a punitive enough approach to address the problem of delinquent youth (Skeleton, 2000). If this is indeed the case then the legitimacy of the reforms in JJS become at the very least precarious. One of the major reforms currently looming is to channel children away from the formal courts and towards reintegrative programmes, it can be argued that the role of a social worker becomes more essential if not a necessity if such programmes are to become a success. Nevertheless both probation officers and juvenile justice social workers have been accused of being implementers as opposed to generators of social policies (Gxubane, 2008). The courts in most given states are perceived to be spheres of power and yet the power of a social worker in these settings in virtually non-existent. Social workers and probation officers in South Africa are responsible for providing sentencing guidelines to the courts; however an acute shortage of social workers in this field has meant that their views are not being heard by courts that already have an entrenched bias towards custody (Sewpaul, 2012).

An interesting development in the 90s which affected both countries was the buzz around globalisation. Defined as ‘The growing interdependence and interconnectedness of the modern world through increased flow of goods, services, capital, people and information. The process is driven by technological advances and reductions in the cost of international transactions’ (DFID, 2000 P3); globalisation has far reaching consequences than just economic and commercial ones. Lyons (2006) argued that globalisation impacted on welfare policies and provisions across the globe and had significant impacts on the livelihoods of most of the world’s population especially in the 90s. A sharp rise in capitalism encouraged by globalisation as companies could internationally export and import both goods and labour at cheaper rates ensured the widening of the gap between the haves and the have nots and this had far reaching consequences for welfare development as governments struggled to meet the needs of their citizens.  According to Mishra (1999, p. 51) ‘globalisation and strong neo-liberal tendencies in policy making have come together to erode social citizenship and weaken … an earlier commitment to a social minimum as of right’. Indeed any threat to welfare development is a threat to social work practices as the profession’s values and legitimacy are put to test. It is evident that cuts in spending during this time in both countries and public outcry were the major factors behind policy changes, there is no evidence to suggest that expert knowledge of the professional social workers in this field was solicited but rather as agents of the state they were expected to fall in line and this is a cause of concern for social workers but more so for the human rights of the young people that social workers are meant to advocate for in this area locally or internationally.

In conclusion a comparison between a first world country and a developing country in terms of social work practice or any subject for that matter is ‘expected’ to come out with the latter fairing really well over its counterpart. This was certainly the assumption when this journey started. However despite the huge head start on policy development that the England and Wales YJS have on the South African JJS the main theme is the muted voice of the social worker in both systems. A quiet voice does not engage in dialogue, it does not voice reason, it does not provoke action and it most certainly does not speak on behalf of the socially excluded, the socially isolated and those treated unjustly by social constructions and unjust political policies and legislation. The aforementioned are all cornerstones of social work values and if social workers in this field cannot a find a place to challenge policies that are potentially detrimental to children’s welfare then this questions the legitimacy of their presence in these services. While Multidisciplinary work has been heralded as the way forward in securing good outcomes for children in the youth justice systems it has left professionals with different agendas struggling to uphold their values amid the compromise that is inevitable in these settings.  As Holloway (2002 p 13) stated ‘The wrongs of the world are not chance injustices but part of a system that is profoundly wrong’.


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