What does it mean to understand the ‘child offender’ as a ‘myth’? How do we – as social scientists, practitioners, researchers, teachers, law enforcers, students, a society – understand the criminalisation of children? Why are some children criminalised more than others? What happens when we criminalise children? And why are these questions important to ask, and to reflect on, for all of us?
This month, JYP-Network co-convenor Dr Diana Johns participated in a panel discussion with other members of the Australia & New Zealand Society of Criminology’s (ANZSOC) newly formed Thematic Group on Children and Young People in the Criminal Justice System – Dr Susie Baidawi (Monash University) and Robyn Oxley (University of Western Sydney). The event was hosted by Thematic Group convenors Dr Emma Colvin, Dr Shelley Turner and Dr Faith Gordon. For the 100+ people who attended the webinar, it was a rich opportunity to explore some of these issues, ask difficult questions, and challenge some of our deeply held and often taken-for-granted assumptions about ‘children’ as ‘offenders’.
Here, Diana briefly explains the concept of ‘myth’ and how it sets the scene for the discussion:
The concept of myth is, at first glance, a familiar one. We all know what ‘myths’ are – they are shared stories that have a function, which is usually to explain something about the world, how it is and how it came to be.
I’m using the concept of myth in a particular way, however, which draws on the ideas of French writer, thinker, essayist, Roland Barthes and his 1957 book, Mythologies. For Barthes, myth has specific meanings, qualities, dimensions and functions that give us a useful way to think about things we take for granted. From a Barthes-ian perspective, myth is a ‘system of communication’, ‘a message’, ‘a mode of signification’ – i.e. it is a form we use to convey meaning – BUT it distorts, it bends our perceptions in two important ways:
1) It removes history – “it transforms history into nature” (p.154) – “things lose the memory that they once were made” (p.169)
2) It appears as a statement of fact: “it establishes a blissful clarity: things appear to mean something by themselves.”
These aspects of how myth functions make it a useful conceptual tool (or lens)! If we think about the myth of the ‘child offender’ through this lens, we see that this seemingly simple and recognisable term tends to strip away and conceal all the complexity of children’s lives, all the history of how this term came to be and, indeed, its construction as a legal definition that has changed and continues to change across time and place. As we start to see, this simple and recognisable form – the ‘child offender’ or the ‘youth offender’ – becomes less a concrete ‘thing’ and more a kind of shorthand for a whole set of assumptions that we tend not to question in our day-to-day lives – whether we work with young people, research children in the justice system, or consume images and stories about ‘young offenders’ and ‘youth crime’ in the media.
Watch the recording above to follow the discussion… Hear Robyn talk about how colonisation in Australia still shapes the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, families and communities in Australia, and how historical practices relate to current forms of criminalisation. Listen to Susie explain the overlap between the youth justice system and the child protection system, how children with neurodisabilities can be criminalised when systems fail them, and how children make sense of their own experiences of criminalisation…
We explore recent examples of ‘the myth of the child offender’ – what it looks like in practice – and we consider concrete ways that we can start to challenge this myth, to deepen our understanding of the complexities it hides, to bring about better outcomes for children.
This will be and always is an ongoing conversation… join in!
P.S. To read more about Roland Barthes’ notion of myth, here are some links:
Andrew Robinson (2011) gives a good explanation of Barthes’ notion of myth here in a short article (part of a six-part series on Barthes) in Ceasefire Magazine.
This short (3 minute video) animation explains how Barthes helps us understand media myths and myth-making and ‘How to Read the Signs in the News’: https://youtu.be/FeF6O6E9RQ8