What are the common offences committed by the young?

Alcohol: It is an offence to sell alcohol to those under the age of 18 and those young people found in possession may find it confiscated in some public areas.

Being found drunk and disorderly in a public place will very often lead to a young person being warned as to their immediate behaviour, a failure to heed that warning will result in arrest.
Drink driving is the most common drink-related offence and leads to a driving ban for a minimum period of 12 months and in most cases much longer. This can affect a young person’s job prospects and will inevitably mean that their first car is far in the future if only because of the prohibitive insurance premiums that will follow. Drink-related crime features very highly in youth court cases.

Drugs: Mixed messages, particularly in relation to the use of cannabis which has become a great deal stronger in recent years, has lead to widespread confusion in relation to drug possession. The Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 regulates what are called ‘controlled drugs‘. It divides drugs into three classes: Class A (including, cocaine and crack, ecstasy, heroin, LSD, methamphetamine (crystal meth), and magic mushrooms); Class B (including cannabis, amphetamine and barbiturates); Class C (including amphetamines, anabolic steroids and minor tranquillisers).
It remains a criminal offence to possess any controlled drug, including cannabis and, unlike adults, young persons under 18 years old are not eligible for informal warnings or penalty notices. This means that in most cases they will have their conduct formally marked by a reprimand or final warning.
For dealing and trafficking, the maximum penalty can rise to life imprisonment, and in all cases a very long prison sentence is inevitable. Possession of even small quantities of class A drugs is treated seriously and may result in detention. Children are often used by drug dealers and even limited involvement with drugs is a serious offence. Drug dealing carries heavy penalties, even where it is not carried out for a profit. Most medicines are not controlled drugs but they are nonetheless strictly regulated, and dealing in them is a criminal offence, this includes common substances such as the stimulant ephedrine, widely used by body builders.
There is a strong link between acquisitive offending and drug use as those addicted steal ever increasing amounts in order to fund their addiction. Whilst there are community orders that can go some way to addressing substance misuse, they should not be considered a light option and will involve a strong commitment from the offender if they are to work.
For a first offence of cannabis possession young people (under 18) will be arrested, taken to a police station where they will be interviewed under caution, fingerprinted, photographed and have their DNA taken and given a formal warning or reprimand and have an entry against their name on the Police National Computer. Further offences will lead to a final warning or charge.

Young people are rarely arrested for straight possession of drugs, it is usually found on them when they are arrested for other matters. Many clubs operate stop and search policies on entry and will notify police if drugs are discovered. Arrest will follow. If there is a raid and drugs found but are not immediately attributable to one person (for example, if they are on the table in living room in a shared flat) all will be arrested and interviewed.

Prescription medicines if prescribed to a named person are controlled, and are categorised as class A,B or C according to the type of medicine. It’s an offence to possess and supply.

Theft: Theft (maximum penalty seven years) is the dishonest taking of property and robbery (maximum penalty life imprisonment) is theft with the use or threat of force in order to take property (Theft Act 1968). Thefts range from simple shoplifting through to violent street robberies. Mugging is taken extremely seriously by the courts. Courts are also likely to take a strong line in robberies involving weapons, particularly knives, as these offences often have unintended outcomes – not least when people ending up facing murder charges, when all they set out to do was frighten and take a pair of trainers or a mobile phone.

Carrying a weapon: It is an offence for any person to have a knife, blade or other type of offensive weapon on them whilst in public and especially on school premises (under the Offensive Weapons Act 1996)  A police officer can come on to school premises to search anyone who is believed to be in possession of a weapon and also to arrest them. A person found to be in possession of an offensive weapon may be able to rely on limited defences (used for work or part of a national costume). It is also an offence to sell a knife or a similar type of weapon to a person under 18 years of age. All offences under the 1996 Act carry imprisonment and can even go to the Crown Court.

Criminal Damage: Criminal damage is the intentional or reckless damaging of property, ranging from smashing windows with stones through to setting fire to warehouses (arson). Many offences result in grave yet unintended consequences (throwing stones at cars leading to motor accidents and setting fire to seemingly unoccupied buildings leading to death), and it is for this reason that young people need to be particularly aware that they will generally be liable for unintended consequences.

Anti-social behaviour: Contrary to popular belief there is no crime of ‘anti-social behaviour’, and the term is used in law to denote behaviour that causes harassment, alarm or distress to another. Some acts, such as violence, meet that definition in almost all cases; in some instances even things such as criminal damage or littering might be classed as anti-social behaviour. New Labour introduced the anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) regime (under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998) to deal with this particular problem and they are civil orders that seek to impose restrictions on what a child (or adult) can and cannot do. Breaches of ASBOs are dealt with severely and detention of up to five years can be imposed in the most serious cases. A whole raft of laws were brought in (under the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003) to stop low level anti-social activities (many of which affect young people) including cycling on the pavement, truancy (see chapter X), hoax 999 calls, letting off fireworks, and drunkenness in public.
Often the child is behaving in a consistently anti-social manner. Each individual act might of itself be at the lowest end of the scale of offending, but cumulatively presents a problem for either the repeat victim or the wider community.

Sexual offences: Young people need to be absolutely certain when having sexual relations that their partner is over the age of consent. A child under the age of 13 years cannot consent to sexual intercourse and ‘reasonable belief’ as to consent and age is irrelevant. However the Crown Prosecution Services is unlikely to prosecute if the activity is between experimenting children. A boy under 18 years who has sex or indulges in heavy petting with a girl aged between 13 and 15 years who doesn’t reasonably believe she is over 16 years commits an offence. If the complainant is under 13, consent is irrelevant.

It is also an offence to have indecent photos of a child (under 18 years) under the Criminal Justice Act 1988, section 160, and on mobile phones under the Protection of Children Act 1978, section 1.

 

Box: Cannabis and the law

  • 1970: designated special class B category halfway between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ drugs, as a compromise between Labour home secretary James Callaghan who believed it was as dangerous as heroin and a ‘student faction’ in cabinet who did not.
  • 1978: Advisory council on misuse of drugs recommends downgrading cannabis from class B to class C to put it on a par with tranquillisers. Labour home secretary rejects advice.
  • 2002: Advisory council on misuse of drugs looks again at legal status of cannabis at request of the then New Labour home secretary David Blunkett, and again recommends downgrading it from B to C, saying it was less harmful than other class B drugs such as amphetamines.
  • 2004: David Blunkett downgrades cannabis. It is still illegal but police adopt a policy of ‘confiscate and warn’. Maximum prison sentence for possession cut from five to two years.
  • 2005: Charles Clarke (as New Labour Home Secretary) asks the Advisory council on misuse of drugs to review evidence on effects of strong cannabis on mental health. The council decides to confirm its status as a class C drug but issues a reminder of its harmfulness.
  • 2007: Home secretary Jacqui Smith (again, as New Labour Home Secretary) requests further review amid anxiety about more potent strains and impact on mental health.
  • @font-face { font-family: “Cambria”; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0cm 0cm 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }a:link, span.MsoHyperlink { color: blue; text-decoration: underline; }a:visited, span.MsoHyperlinkFollowed { color: purple; text-decoration: underline; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }Thanks to Andrew Keogh, criminal defence lawyer and editor of CrimeLine for his help with this section and an earlier version which appeared in A Parent’s Guide to the Law by Jon Robins (LawPack , 2009). We’re grateful also to Kim Evans for her help.

Profile photo of Jon Robins About Jon Robins
Jon is editor of the Justice Gap. He is a freelance journalist. Jon's books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009) and People Power (Daily Telegraph/LawPack, 2008). Jon is a journalism lecturer at Winchester University and a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln. He is twice winner of the Bar Council's journalism award (2015 and 2005) and is shortlisted for this year's Criminal Justice Alliance's journalism award

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