“When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home” (Hinton, p.1)
This opening line will resonate for many who read The Outsiders (London: Penguin Books, 2016; originally USA: Viking Penguin, 1967) as a teenager and perhaps also watched the 1983 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
The story is narrated by Ponyboy, a fourteen year old member of the ‘Greasers’, who fight running battles with the rich-kid ‘Socs’ on the streets of Tulsa, in the United States. What is extraordinary is that Susan Eloise Hinton wrote the book as a teenager while at high school, although it was not published until she was 19. She was advised to publish under the name S.E. Hinton in case male book reviewers dismissed her writing as a female.
Ponyboy is a sensitive, bookish dreamer, though is also fiercely loyal to his older Greaser peers and gets stuck into the periodic, often brutal, street brawls with the Socs. His parents are recently dead and he lives with his two older brothers who seek to keep Ponyboy in school, maintain boundaries and keep a clean house. Their home is in a down-at-heel area and his older brothers have dropped out of school to work and pay the bills.
The wider Greaser gang members have their share of troubles at home – alcoholism, emotional neglect and violence – although as Hinton shows so well, the rich Soc kids have their troubles too.
One night, a terrible incident changes everything for Ponyboy and we follow him through a heart breaking and intense few weeks. Hinton wants us to understand, if not like, all of the characters. She reminds us of the struggles of growing up through teens and into early twenties: amplified for those who do not have a safe anchor and resources at home.
On 16 September 2020, the Government published a White Paper ‘A Smarter Approach to Sentencing‘. In the section of the paper concerning youth sentences, The Rt Hon Robert Buckland QC MP set the tone in his accompanying speech:
Judges’ hands are too often tied in handing down sentences to young offenders that are too lenient and potentially put the public at risk.
While the Government recognises in the document that more must be done to tackle the causes of crime and the inequalities in the youth justice system, the only concrete details relate to punitive measures: for example, increasing the minimum release point from custody for the most serious offences from half-way through the sentence, to two thirds.
Moreover, political commentary in the lead up to the White Paper’s publication had raised the case of Hashem Abedi, who helped his brother Salman plan the Manchester Arena bombing. Hashem was jailed in August 2020 for life and ordered to serve at least 55 years in prison. Yet because he was under the age of 21 at the time of the murders, a whole-life order was not an option open to the courts. Writing in the Sunday Express, the Prime Minster Boris Johnson cited the Abedi case and said that if a young person is involved in a plot to kill dozens of people “then it doesn’t matter if you’re ‘only’ 18, 19 or 20 when you do so”. And so the new White Paper proposes whole life orders to be a sentencing option from aged 18.
The Abedi case is a high profile, terrible, and mercifully rare event. However, the application of whole-life orders for 18 year olds is not the most pressing issue in youth justice (whether you agree with the proposal or not).
More pressing issues in England and Wales include:
• around a quarter of the youth custody population are children who are on remand, and 66% of that group do not go onto receive a custodial sentence (Youth Justice Legal Centre, 2020);
• around half of the current youth custody population are Black, mixed heritage, Asian and other ethnicities (other than ‘White’ – which the Youth Justice Statistics define as including White British and White ethnic minorities);
• for the year ending March 2019, children and young people had the highest reoffending rate of all age groups at 38.4%, compared, for example to 28.5% for adults (aged 21 and over);
• fewer than 1% of all children in England are in care, but they make up
around two-fifths of children in secure training centres (44%) and young offender institutions (39%).
The number of young people in custody has ebbed and flowed over the decades – up in the thousands in the 2000s and down to hundreds now in 2020, for example – although this number has less to do with the level of overall youth offending as much as how the state responds.
Containment may be required for the most serious cases, but the vast majority of young offenders are troubled and experiencing significant personal and social difficulties. They are more likely to be from urban, deprived areas and they are more likely to be to be Black or Asian, as these groups are more intensely policed. They may be chaotic, insecure and angry and it can take time to undo the self-protective behaviours and attitudes that develop while growing up under stress.
The public do deserve protection from harm: likewise, young people deserve protection from social and family harm. Punitive sentences incapacitate and have symbolic value in signifying retributive justice, but they are unlikely to deter or to disrupt youth offending patterns.
Governments talk about tackling the social causes of crime, but we know this work is difficult and long term, beyond the electoral cycle. It requires investment in the 0-5 age group through children’s centres and family and parenting support; it requires an enabling rather than punitive approach to welfare and benefits; it requires a rapid response to children struggling at school to avoid exclusion (including early diagnosis and intervention for learning barriers and disabilities); and it requires adults of all ages to get involved in mentoring young people, supporting them to make positive choices and being a listening ear. It takes a village to raise a child, they say.
Some will accuse Hinton of a youthful optimism at the close of the book, when Ponyboy reflects that every young person could be turned around. But it is an indictment on all of us if we cannot muster the policy and personal investment to at least try.
Suddenly it wasn’t only a personal thing to me. I could picture hundreds and hundreds of boys living on the wrong sides of cities, boys with black eyes who jumped at their own shadows. Hundreds of boys who maybe watched sunsets and looked at stars and ached for something better. I could see boys going down under street lights because they were mean and tough and hated the world and it was to late to tell them that there was still good in it, and they wouldn’t believe you if you did. It was too vast a problem to be just a personal thing. There should be some help, someone should tell them before it was too late. (Hinton, 2016, pp.214-215)
© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020.
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