Picture a courtroom in South London. A young man is in the witness box. He is casually dressed, expressing trendy disregard for courtroom niceties. All of a sudden, he valiantly demolishes the fourth wall by leaving the box in the middle of his testimony. The judge, sat in his normal place, wigless but suited, allows the procedural faux pas to pass unpunished. The rebel witness strides towards the dock. Increasing his volume, he turns to face the judge and thrusts a pleading hand up towards his gavel: "The next time you're here, this could all be real" he says, before turning to face the sniggering young men in the dock. The youngest of them all, barely a teenager, has flipped the bird into his face. The judge rests his head into his hands. The witness retires.
A scene from one of the last days of Grange Hill? A music video for a new grime band? No, this is a real-life vignette from the turbulent and increasingly bizarre relationship between young people and the British state.
Last month, reforms to the law around joint enterprise which could see more young people convicted of murder were greeted with glee by many in the establishment, as well as high profile youth workers and other professional nice people. This was representative of a tragic new dynamic emerging between the state and 'da kidz': an incessant drive to use coercion through the legal system to force them to change their ways, rather than offering any meaningful alternative to a life of crime.
The new 'gang call in' initiative, on the other hand, shows things getting a little silly. The idea is that young people respond to invitations from the police to come to court of an evening to be told to change their ways by a set of 'witnesses'. These include youth leaders, ex-gang leaders and the parents of those killed by other young people. In one particularly cringeworthy exchange, chief Inspector of Enfield Police Ian Kebblewoirth responded to dock sniggers by shouting, yes shouting: "Is it funny? You may think you belong to a big gang, you may be 50 people, even 100, but we have 32,000 in our gang. It's called the Metropolitan Police."
Today's police may seem a bit more like a gang than an institution of the state. In fact, the London riots showed they may not even be the hardest 'gang' in London. But to hear this lack of old institutional authority expressed so clearly in Kebbleworth's desperate pleas to the young to behave is striking. So scared were the police of the 'gang' in the dock that the water cooler in the court was removed beforehand because "it could have been used as a weapon."
The session concluded with the youths being given the number of their local bobby and effectively encouraged to grass their mates up. The judge told them that they will be taken out through the cells to give them an idea of where they may end up if they don't change their ways: "You have a choice" he said, judicially summing up: "Think about it."
This is not the only session of its kind. It is a pilot based on a system of 'community courts' from the United States. It is anticipated that more and more of these sessions will be held in courts across the country. Community courts were used Stateside to intervene in areas of high youth crime in order pre-empt criminal activity. These have become known as 'problem solving courts', state institutions designed to correct troublesome behaviour rather than punish illegal acts.
There is a subtle authoritarianism behind this shift in the role of the courts. Their interventions are no longer limited to punishing crimes, which are comparatively easily defined, but to all manner of behaviour that the state may view as leading to crimes. This has a potentially significant impact on many areas of public life. The youths in court in South London were invited on the basis that they were involved in a gang called the 'Get Money Gang'. In other words, a judgement was made on their character based on who they were friends with. How long before these new institutions explicitly start to regulate young people's freedom to associate?
But this is not simply about the law. Underneath these bizarre new courtroom rituals is the same social problem that propels judges to lock more young people up: that there is a section of the population who have lost any sense that society is worth contributing to. As these initiatives are rolled out across the country there is a real risk that we delegate our responsibility for providing an alternative for young people to the institutions of the state. It's time we stop pleading, like the wimpy Chief inspector in South London, and start leading.
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