Youth Justice banner featuring Prof Barry Goldson and a black and white photo of two children behind wire fencing.

Youth justice, human rights and penal detention

For over two decades Professor Barry Goldson has led a programme of research focusing principally on the functioning and effects of youth justice systems (especially penal detention), benchmarked against the provisions of international law/human rights standards. During this time, he has worked closely with a range of national and international academic institutions, governmental agencies and non-governmental human rights and progressive penal reform organisations.

REF2021 submission

The challenge

The treatment and conditions experienced by children and young people exposed to youth justice systems (especially penal detention), together with the outcomes of such systems - for the same children and young people and for the general public - have preoccupied researchers for the best part of two centuries. More recently, international law and a range of international human rights standards have aimed to limit the reach of youth justice systems in general and to mitigate the excesses of penal detention in particular.

Notwithstanding this, many applications of youth justice intervention and penal detention are subject to temporal and spatial vagaries and remain deeply problematic.

Taken together, the body of Professor Goldson’s work shines a light on such phenomena and it strives to impact positively on policy and practice, nationally and internationally.


Research action

Five key research projects – extending from the early 2000s to the present – are especially noteworthy (also refer to ‘Selected outputs and outcomes’ below).

First, Professor Goldson’s national study ‘Vulnerability and Custody’ (funded by The Children’s Society), examined the myriad vulnerabilities of child prisoners including their exposure to processes that often violate international human rights law/standards. Practices including ‘restraint’ and ‘single separation’ (solitary confinement) were found to be particularly problematic for all child prisoners and, at the extremes, they were shown to be fatal.

Second, building upon the above work, ‘Youth Deaths in Prison Custody’ (funded by INQUEST) comprised the first detailed study to explicitly centre child deaths in penal detention. The research revealed the vital importance of independent transparent review and accountability mechanisms in order to draw lessons from critical incidents in youth penal detention and to apply such lessons in ways that might improve policy and practice.

Third, children with complex needs and mental health conditions are especially vulnerable in penal detention and key insights and findings provided by the ‘Youth Justice and Mental Health Diversion’ study (funded by the NIHR, Department of Health), indicated that to obtain best outcomes for such young people clear, consistent and human-rights compliant policies and practices - that address their specific needs - and the systematic provision of appropriate staff training, regular supervision and accountability structures are imperative.

Fourth, the principal insights and findings provided by the ‘Knowledge, Effectiveness and Human Rights in the Youth Justice Sphere’ research (funded by the Leverhulme Trust), centre both the potential for international human rights law/standards to positively shape best policy and practice in youth justice and penal detention but also the barriers and forms of resistance that can impede the implementation of such standards.

Fifth, by engaging trans-national longitudinal research the ‘Comparative Youth Penality Project’ (funded by the Australian Research Council, the ESRC and the Howard League for Penal Reform), further examined both the prospects and the limitations of international law/standards to drive best practice in youth justice and penal detention.

Professor Goldson’s track-record of research in youth justice, human rights and penal detention, together with the salience of the insights and findings provided by the same research, recently led to two high-profile appointments.

In 2016, he was appointed - with Professor Nick Hardwick, previously HM Chief Inspector of Prisons and Chair of the Parole Board in England and Wales - to co-lead the ‘Operational Review’ of the penal detention of children in Ireland. Professors Goldson and Hardwick submitted a detailed report of the Operational Review to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in 2017. The report contained 95 recommendations and both internal and ‘arms-length’ monitoring mechanisms, together with numerous debates, statements and both oral and written questions/answers during sittings of the Dáil Éireann, Houses of the Oireachtas (Ireland’s Parliament) and the Joint Oireachtas (Parliamentary) Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, provide a wide-range of evidence that the adoption and implementation of the recommendations has impacted positively on improving policy and practice.

In 2017, Professor Goldson - one of 22 ‘highly renowned experts in the field of children’s rights’ - was invited to join the international Advisory Board to the United Nations Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty. The United Nations Study comprises the world’s most ambitious analysis of the penal detention of children and young people. A summary report was presented to the United Nations General Assembly in New York in October 2019 and the full report (PDF) was launched in Geneva in November of the same year.

Working in partnerships

Professor Goldson is committed to research that is theoretically-informed, empirically-grounded and policy-relevant. As such, throughout his career he has forged partnerships with a wide range of cognate institutions, organisations and agencies and his work has earned significant international recognition within both the academy and the wider research-user community.

He is Chair of the British Society of Criminology Youth Criminology/Youth Justice Network (BSC YC/YJN) and the European Society of Criminology Thematic Working Group on Juvenile Justice (ESC TWGJJ).

Selected outputs and outcomes

‘Vulnerability and Custody’ - Goldson, B. (2002) Vulnerable Inside: Children in Secure and Penal Settings. London: The Children’s Society.

Barry Goldson Vulnerable Inside book cover featuring two children behind a fence.

‘Youth Deaths in Prison Custody’ - Goldson, B. and Coles, D. (2005) In the Care of the State? Child Deaths in Penal Custody in England and Wales. London: INQUEST.

Barry Goldson In Care of the State book cover with white text on a blue background

‘Youth Justice and Mental Health Diversion’ - various outputs.

‘Knowledge, Effectiveness and Human Rights in the Youth Justice Sphere’ - Goldson, B. and Muncie, J. (2012) ‘Towards a global ‘child friendly’ juvenile justice?’, International Journal of Law, Crime and Justice, 40(1): 47-64.

‘Comparative Youth Penality Project’ - Goldson, B., Cunneen, C., Russell, S., Brown, D., Baldry, E., Schwartz. M. and Briggs, D. (2020) Youth Justice and Penality in Comparative Context. London: Routledge.

Barry Goldson Youth Justice book cover featuring abstract river water in blues, greens and yellows.

Details of further publications authored by Professor Goldson can be found on his staff profile page.


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