Bullying has always been a problem for young people but it is only recently that bullying could be done over a long distance and potentially without knowing who the bully is. Bullying through the internet or phones, cyberbullying, has however with the spread of first the internet and then smartphones become as much of a problem and one that is harder to deal with then offline bullying. That harassment online can be a crime just like harassment offline is widely accepted but there is less consensus about what to do to punish extreme cases, especially when the perpetrator is under the age of 18 so is a young offender. Does sending them to jail, or a little more leniently a young offender’s institute fit the crime?
Some countries do have jail time as a potential punishment for cyberbullying; the UK enacted legislation in 2014 which included up to two years jail time for cyberbullying. It is not the only country to do so, New Zealand, Singapore, Canada, and some US states (Maryland, Tennessee, and Wisconsin) all also have the possibility of jail crime for cyberbullying. Many of these laws are recent and more are sure to follow which makes this punishment of cyberbullying an important debate to be had.
N.B. in this debate we will consider jail and young offenders institutes interchangeably. Ideally young offenders will be in an appropriate prison however this will vary from country to country.
 Gibbs, Samuel, ‘Cyber-bullies could face two years in jail under new internet troll rules’, The Guardian, 26 March 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/mar/26/cyber-bullies-tougher-penalties-internet-troll
 Hahn, Jason, ‘Cyberbullying is now a crime in New Zealand punishable by jail time and fine’, Digitaltrends.com, 5 July 2015, http://www.digitaltrends.com/web/cyberbullying-is-now-a-crime-in-new-zealand-punishable-by-jail-time-and-fine/
 ‘Singapore to legislate against cyber bullies’, Out-Law.com, March 2014, http://www.out-law.com/en/articles/2014/march/singapore-to-legislate-against-cyber-bullies/
 ‘Cyberbullying Laws Around the Globe: Where is Legislation Strongest?’, uknowkids.com, 16 October 2014, http://resources.uknowkids.com/blog/cyberbullying-laws-around-the-globe-where-is-legislation-strongest
Punishment must fit the crime. Cyberbullying by a young person can be just as damaging to a victim as a similar crime by someone older. As a result should be equally punished. When cyberbullying has ruined someone’s life, and possibly led them to commit suicide, there were 9 teenage suicides as a result of bullying on Ask.fm in 2012 alone, then not only the victims but their loved ones lives have been ruined as a result of the offender’s actions. Such a consequence deserves jail time to pay for the actions.
 Broderick, Ryan, ‘9 Teenage Suicides In The Last Year Were Linked To Cyber-Bullying On Social Network Ask.fm’, BuzzFeedNews, 11 September 2013, http://www.buzzfeed.com/ryanhatesthis/a-ninth-teenager-since-last-september-has-committed-suicide#.hmzj8JNV3W
Sentencing a criminal should not just be about punishing them for the magnitude of the result of the crime. Instead it should be about reformation and reintegrating the offender so that they can continue their life in future without engaging in any crime. While cyberbullies bear much responsibility for what they have done when the victim commits suicide it was not a direct action by the offender.
Part of the point of time detained in jail is to prevent the offender from reoffending while inside. Being in jail prevents the offender from continuing to engage in cyberbullying by denying unsupervised access to the internet or telephones. It is the most reliable way to prevent reoffending for the duration of the sentence.
Prison is the harshest possible way to prevent the offender from continuing to bully. As the crimes were committed online the offender can be cut off from the internet, or simply banned from the sites where he was committing the offence.
While rehabilitation and prevention are important parts of sentencing there also needs to be punishment. There being a punishment, is necessary to ensure there is a deterrence to prevent the offender reoffending, and to prevent others carrying out the same crime. This applies equally to young offenders as to older criminals.
Punishment does not have to be the complete loss of freedom that is prison. The loss of freedom as punishment should be interpreted more broadly than not being able to move from a particular location. Losing the freedom to use the internet or social networks can be as much punishment when these are activities that the offender enjoys.
Children under 18 should not be sent to jail. Children are considered less responsible for their crimes and the age of criminal responsibility is arbitrary with some countries having much higher ages than others; in the UK it is 10 however in some such as many Latin American countries it is as high as 18. Children are often not able to understand the full damage of their actions or why it is wrong. This is not something that comes at a set age but is a slow change. As such children at younger ages should not be punished to the same extent as adults.
Many children under the age of 18 both know the consequences of their actions and know that bullying, whether on or offline, is wrong. We cannot simply let these people get away with little punishment simply because they are under 18. If they have a lower mental age then there is already the possibility of the defence pleading diminished responsibility.
Putting young offenders in jail does not work, it increases not decreases crime. Going to jail makes children more likely to offend again with young offenders 67% more likely to be in jail again by 25 than those young offenders who did not go to prison. At the same time they are 13 percentage points less likely to finish high school. These statistics shows the damage that jail has on a young life; instead of completing high school and eventually getting a job jail usually means those who have spent time before continue on a self destructive criminal path.
 Beauchamp, Zack, ‘Study: Throwing Kids in Jail Makes Crime Worse, Ruins Lives’, ThinkProgress, 17 June 2013, http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2013/06/17/2166481/study-throwing-kids-in-jail-makes-crime-worse-ruins-lives/
The key here is to provide the educational opportunities and care inside a young offenders’ institute that they would be engaging in outside. This will allow learning and development to continue as normal while still providing punishment. The UK has from 2014 been increasing learning to 24 hours a week – very close to what many British secondary schools provide.
 Fazaeli, Toni, ‘Securing education for young offenders – learning first, detention second’, FE Week, 24 January 2014, http://feweek.co.uk/2014/01/24/securing-education-for-young-offenders-learning-first-detention-second/
Jail or time in a Young offenders institute is an extreme reaction to a problem that can be solved by other measures. As an online crime the offender could be denied access to the internet or a mobile for a set period. Cutting off access would not only physically prevent reoffending but would have a similar ‘denial of liberty’ to jail. There have been suggestions that there should be internet ASBOs (Anti Social Behaviour Orders) to block people from particular sites in response to racism online, this would be similar. Any other option would be cheaper than prison which costs on average £38,000 per prisoner per year in the UK.
 Syal, Rajeev, ‘Punish hate crime on social media with internet asbos, say MPs’, The Guardian, 9 February 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/feb/09/hate-crime-social-media-internet-asbos
 Ruskin, John, ‘Why has prison emerged as a prominent form of punishment for most crime and what are its functions in relation to wider society?’, Internet Journal of Criminology, 2011, http://www.internetjournalofcriminology.com/Taylor_Prison_and_its_Functions_IJC_August_2011.pdf, p.3
The other options are much less likely to be effective at stopping the bullying from taking place than jail time. 58% of ASBOs handed out between 2000 and 2013 were breached. 43% were breached more than once.
 Home Office, ‘Anti-social behaviour order statistics: England and Wales 2013 key findings’, gov.uk, 18 September 2014, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/anti-social-behaviour-order-statistics-england-and-wales-2013/anti-social-behaviour-order-statistics-england-and-wales-2013-key-findings#asbos-breached