Violent youth crime won’t change until we start speaking about it differently. We need to recognise the psychosocial factors that contribute towards violence and the ineffectiveness of our current response towards crime
In the past 18 months, the UK has seen a spike in violent crime. Recent figures released by the Home Office suggest that offences involving knives have increased by two thirds since 2014. The use of these weapons by young people against other young people, in particular, is rising. Although the issue has been addressed by the media and politicians, discussions have focused on criticising police cuts and promoting tougher sentences for individuals caught carrying offensive weapons. This public narrative doesn’t include consideration of how wider social and psychological factors impact the act of committing a crime.
When knife crime is reported to the public, the emphasis is almost solely on the incident itself. Media outlets spare no detail recounting the events and condemning the perpetrators for what is seen as a senseless act of violence. In political debates, these incidents of violence have been used to highlight the impact of austerity, including police having reduced capacity to deter and respond to these events. While some journalists have highlighted the closure of youth clubs as a relevant precursor to the upsurge in crime, this consideration of broader context tends to be the exception rather than the norm. For the most part, the media decontextualizes acts of violence from the wider influences on behaviour - the conversations only begin in the moment a crime is committed. The myriad other influencing factors remain in the margins.
Yet, there is a large body of evidence to suggest that offending behaviour can have its roots long before the act occurs. Young people who are exposed to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), such as physical, verbal or sexual abuse, or whose parents are in prison or going through divorce are more likely to become involved in crime. And, though we are all susceptible to experiencing ACEs, poverty acts as a risk factor - people living in the most deprived areas report the highest levels of ACEs. The more ACEs a young person has, the more likely they will be criminally involved by the time they reach their teenage years. This evidence shouts loudly that youth violence is influenced by factors that emerge or are present long before the act of crime itself. It is clear that current narratives focusing only on the act of violence itself are ignoring a range of social and psychological factors that are also a part of each young person’s story.
These limited narratives can oversimplify crime, but also impact the effectiveness of interventions aimed at reducing youth violence. When all that is known about these individuals is a single act of violence, the only reasonable outcome is one that immediately minimises the risk of that act reoccurring. More often than not, this means incarceration in a young offender institution. Yet, these institutions are not designed or equipped to rehabilitate someone who has offended. As an example, we know that vulnerable young people who spend time with young people who have offended are more likely to become involved in crime. This does not bode well for reducing re-offending.
If the aim of the criminal justice system is to stop young people from offending, there should be a focus on connecting vulnerable young people with positive role models in their communities. Instead, young people leave prison with a limited support network, often going back to the same pathways that led them into the criminal justice system in the first place. This is backed up by Ministry of Justice statistics, which reveal that up to 65% of young people who spend time in a young offender institution go on to re-offend. Such high re-offending rates show how the criminal justice system is failing to effectively tackle the issues underlying youth violence.
With this in mind, we should be alarmed that certain groups are more likely to end up incarcerated. The Lammy Review of 2017 found that young people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds were disproportionally represented in the criminal justice system. These young people are also significantly more likely to be given short detention sentences, rather than community-based ones. This all points to a criminal justice system that is biased against those who have been historically disadvantaged in society.
But there is some good news. Work has been started on a more psychologically informed approach to youth justice. The Youth Violence Commission, made up of politicians, academics and practitioners, have conducted research on the subject of youth violence. In their interim report, published in 2018, they recommend a ‘public health approach’ to youth crime that aims to address early risk factors for offending.
A public health approach considers violence to be the symptom of a range of psychological factors, much in the same way that type 2 diabetes is the result of a combination of various cultural and lifestyle factors - diet, exercise, family history etc. Rather than addressing the diabetes (or violence), public health approaches aim to address the underlying risk factors (or psychological factors) before their impact culminates in disease (or violence). This approach has seen success in Scotland, where the number of violent incidents has halved in the 10 years since the opening of an organisation dedicated to the public health approach, known as the Violence Reduction Unit.
Sadiq Khan has recently announced the opening of a similar organisation in London. Although this is a step in the right direction, the public health approach seems to speak in a language of psychological factors, rather than focusing on deprivation, poverty and other social disadvantage. These units are also limited in their scope, as they lack the ability to work across services and to integrate resources that can prevent offending. We need an organisation which integrates practitioners from various sectors: Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, career support and educational support to name a few. An integrated service would be better equipped to meet each young person’s needs. It is not until this view is adopted into official government policy that the necessary resources can be devoted to developing a comprehensive and effective public health approach.
When the stories surrounding youth violence begin with the act of violence, they miss the range of opportunities to prevent such incidents happening in the first place. Documented successes of early intervention make it clear that prisons are too little too late for everyone involved. We must therefore challenge narratives surrounding youth violence. Public health approaches have started to acknowledge that the timeline of these behaviours begins long before an act of violence occurs. If we, as a society, face this reality - including the discrimination, poverty and racism that influences violence - we can identify avenues for intervention, diversion and rehabilitation. Teenagers should not be defined by their actions as “young offenders”. Instead, they should be seen, and responded to, as young people who are affected by complex personal histories and structural inequality. Only by recognising this complexity can we make the changes needed for a fairer, equal, and just society, and ultimately reduce violence against young people.
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