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Margaret Thatcher’s legacy to youth justice – ‘the short, sharp shock’


April 9, 2013 by CallumPaton

Photo: roberthuffstutter

Margaret Thatcher looked to tread a bold path for the processing of young offenders and her approach was typified by the controversial and divisive short, sharp shock policy.

Conservative campaigning and legislation over her 11-year tenure as prime minister, and as the leader of three consecutive Conservative governments, changed not only how justice was doled out to young people but how they were perceived by society as a whole.

When Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 public opinion felt the youth penal system was ineffective and inefficient – young people were becoming increasingly criminal and the institutions meant to prevent this were costing the taxpayer too much money.

Across the whole of the criminal justice system the Conservatives under Thatcher looked to be the party that was tough on crime. In her leader’s address to the Conservative conference in 1977 she said: “People have asked me whether I am going to make the fight against crime an issue at the next election. No, I am not going to make it an issue. It is the people of Britain who are going to make it an issue.

“Yes, law and order will be an issue, and it will be a vital issue, at the election. If anyone thinks that is right-wing, they should talk to the workers in the factories and the women at the supermarket.”

The guiding principle behind Thatcher’s youth justice policy would be cost. The party had made fiscal responsibility one of its guiding ideological principles and was never going to be able to invest heavily in the youth penal system. Thatcher’s rhetoric would, however, become increasingly assured over the years with regard to criminal justice.

The Conservative manifesto going into the 1979 election stated: “We need more compulsory attendance centres for hooligans at junior and senior levels. In certain detention centres we will experiment with a tougher regime as a short, sharp shock for young criminals.”

The emphasis of the short, sharp shock was on the short. Provisions made in the 1982 Criminal Justice Act, one of two flagship Thatcherite pieces of youth justice legislation, stipulated that young people between the ages of 14 and 21 should be held in newly created detention centres for no longer than four months for lesser offences. There was little emphasis or investment in rehabilitation or meaningful training. The ‘82 act reinvigorated the Borstal system – a particularly spartan form of youth detention which involved mindless repetitive tasks. This was the sharp shock.

Conservative Home Secretary William Whitelaw was the champion of the short, sharp shock detention centres but early in her career Thatcher showed her belief in the effectiveness of harsh punishments as a deterrent. In 1961 as an MP she used a speech at a committee meeting to break with the party position and argue for the use of corporal punishment (whipping with a birch) for offenders under the age of 21. She said: “In our desire for the humanitarian reform of offenders we seem to have lost sight of the purpose of criminal courts and the true aims of punishment.”

She added: “The method of a short, sharp shock—that alternative phrase so frequently used in the early days—no longer seems to be the aim of detention centres. It seems, almost imperceptibly, to have been modified.”

Youth convictions fell in the aftermath of the act though this had little to do with the deterrent. Police were encouraged to use cautioning measures and magistrates, who convict most young offenders, were encouraged not to hand down custodial sentences. Instead, in 1983 £15 million was given to the Intermediate Treatment Initiative to fund voluntary sector projects over three years to develop 4,500 non-custodial alternatives to custody.

Despite the much vaunted fall in youth incarceration figures Thatcher made her most outspoken criticism of contemporary youth in her 1987 speech to the Conservative Party conference saying: “Our greatest concern, in inner cities and elsewhere, is to reverse the tide of crime which disfigures our lives.” She went on: “The great majority of crimes are committed by young people, in their teens and early twenties. It is on such impressionable young people that anti-police propaganda and the glamorisation of crime can have the most deadly effect.”

At the time of the the speech the Conservative government  was overseeing the passage of the 1988 Criminal Justice Act which gave the Home Office powers to appeal sentences it considered too lenient. The act made a series of changes to youth justice, building on the 1982 act which had preceded it, but many of these changes were borne of the failure of the short, sharp shock.

The following video shows Conservative backbencher John Wheeler outlining his feelings on the limits of the short, sharp shock in 1984:

The ‘88 Act put an end to borstal style detention centres as they became amalgamated with young offender’s institutions.

Many of the measures taken by Thatcher’s governments as they lived up to their party conference rhetoric can be said to have failed. Even the short term institutionalising of young offenders reinforced their identities as criminals. Fifty percent of those sent to detention centres reoffended.

Where, however, in the 80s the Conservatives looked to cut costs by diverting many young offenders away from institutions by separating violent and repeat offenders from the mainstream of petty juvenile criminals this had a positive effect.

Nevertheless the rhetoric is what remained. Crime rose dramatically throughout the 80s and the murder of James Bulger in 1993 put youth crime in the centre of the public agenda. John Major’s Conservative government created a number of places for repeat offenders aged 12 to 14 in secure training centres.

Shadow Home Secretary in 1993 Tony Blair looked to make Labour the party that was tough on crime. Under New Labour the mitigation of youth crime would become central in most youth related policies and an attitude which consistently decried the degeneracy of youth would continue and even grow.


  1. ian morrison says:

    I was a victim of this short sharp shock which today is called abuse one officer name sticks in my head officer martinez who liked to full man punch young boys among other torture.bastards hope they are all dead and burning in hell.

  2. Abe smith says:

    I was also a victim of the a place called kirklevinton back in the winter of 1969.the abuse was bad physical as well as mental.made to do press ups at 6am in the yard in the snow,a screw called parker was the biggest bastard that i can remember,it should never have been alliwed to go on but. It did

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