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Courts must consider background of young offenders in new sentencing guidelines

Young offenders will have their backgrounds examined in greater detail under a new sentencing regime.

The latest guidelines set out how courts should consider mitigating circumstances which may indicate an "unstable upbringing" when determining punishments for children and teenagers aged between 10 and 17.

They emphasise the need to avoid criminalising under-18s unnecessarily, with custodial sentences seen as a "last resort".

Offending by a child or young person is "often a phase" which "passes fairly rapidly", the guidance published by the Sentencing Council says.

It highlights factors regularly present in the background of youngsters who come before courts, such as deprived homes and poor parental employment records.

Possible mitigating factors include exposure to drug or alcohol abuse, criminal behaviour within the family and experiences of trauma or loss.

The principles do not undermine the fact the sentence should reflect the seriousness of the offence, the guidelines add, and they are not intended to make significant changes to the length of severity of punishments.

As well as mitigation, courts will also consider "aggravating" features when determining the punishment.

These include, for the first time, the deliberate humiliation of a victim by filming the offence with the intention of posting it on social media.

Sentencing Council chairman Lord Justice Treacy said: "Our guideline on the sentencing of children and young people has the prevention of re-offending at its heart.

"No one wants children who commit offences going on to become adult criminals.

"The guideline therefore looks with far greater detail at what kind of sentence would prevent this based on the age, background and circumstances of each child or young person, so that it can help them reintegrate instead of becoming alienated further."

The Government is planning a number of measures to drive down youth re-offending rates, including the introduction of "secure schools".

Figures show nearly two in five (37.9%) young people released from custody commit a new offence within a year.

As well as overarching guidelines, the Council is also publishing specific guidance for courts dealing with juveniles convicted of robbery and sexual offences.

The guidance on sex crimes says children and young people are "less emotionally developed" than adults.

It says: "O ffending can arise through inappropriate sexual experimentation; gang or peer group pressure to engage in sexual activity; or a lack of understanding regarding consent, exploitation, coercion and appropriate sexual behaviour."

An unstable upbringing is also cited as a possible mitigating factor in the sexual offences guideline.

This could include the offender being exposed to pornography or sexually explicit materials through, for example, grooming by others, as well as any history of abuse against the perpetrator .

The guidelines will come into force in courts in England and Wales on June 1.

They must be followed, unless a judge or magistrate feels it is not in the interests of justice to do so.

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