We are not criminals

From recent tabloid press reports, you could be forgiven for
concluding that anyone born after 1985 is simply a bad person. The
young people we read about today are disrespectful and amoral, they
drink and take drugs and run amok in local communities trailing
destruction and terrifying the elderly. The problem, according to
certain commentators, is a lack of discipline, and the only
solution is to get tough.

This is something of an exaggeration, but young people are
increasingly vilified in the popular press and in public discourse.
Behaviour which would once have been called “high jinks” is now
tagged “antisocial”, and therefore criminal. Teenagers in the
street are deemed to be threatening to other citizens by their very
presence. Children who commit serious crimes, such as murder, are
portrayed as monsters – beyond all normal comprehension. No wonder
women clutch their handbags in fear at the sight of a couple of
boys walking their way.

Such moral panic is pushing the hand of policymakers and creating
unnecessary fear in communities. It is also, unfairly, causing
young people to find themselves ever more isolated and restricted
in their normal activities. Crucially, it is doing nothing to
reduce youth crime, reassure young victims of crime, or help
rehabilitate young people in trouble with the law.

Children’s organisations and criminal justice organisations have
found common cause in their alarm at this increasingly negative
portrayal of young people. The result is Shape: Children’s Lives
and the Youth Crime Debate, a coalition of children’s charities
Barnardo’s, The Children’s Society, the National Children’s Bureau,
NCH, NSPCC and crime reduction charity Nacro. The aim is to
re-shape the debate around youth crime into an intelligent and
useful discussion. The project has 18 months of funding from the
Esm’e Fairbairn Foundation’s Rethinking Crime and Punishment

The partners hope that a more balanced debate will steer the
emphasis away from punishment and move the blame towards tackling
the root causes of youth crime. Research shows that poor parental
supervision, harsh or erratic discipline, family breakdown, poverty
and low educational achievement are all factors which significantly
increase the likelihood of a child offending in future. Children in
trouble are often children in need.

Research published in August by the Edinburgh Study of Youth
Transitions and Crime showed that young offenders are often victims
of crime themselves. Being a victim of crime at age 12 is one of
the most powerful indicators that a child will offend at 15.
Conversely, a child who offends at 12 is likely to be a victim of
crime at 15. Hence crime prevention strategies and victim support
programmes should have the same target audience.

The green paper, Every Child Matters, tries to tackle child
protection, social exclusion, poverty, health and education
inequalities under one umbrella, recognising that these issues are
linked. Professionals in health, education and social services are
encouraged to work closely together to protect children and enable
them to fulfil their potential. Government, social services and
children’s organisations are working hard to find ways to protect
children and young people who are at risk of neglect, abuse, crime
or social exclusion.

Once a young person enters the criminal justice system, however,
they are classified as offenders, rather than children at risk.
Shape is aiming to reverse this paradox. This is not simply a case
of sympathy for the children concerned, but a recognition of the
fact that tackling social issues is vital if we hope to reduce
crime overall.

Successive reports have found that punitive sentences such as
prison are not an effective means of achieving this aim. In 2002
the government’s Social Exclusion Unit found that 84 per cent of
juveniles released from prison in 1997 were reconvicted within two

In contrast, the Youth Justice Board (YJB) states that the average
reconviction rate for community penalties is 42 per cent. This is
still arguably a high figure, which highlights the need to look at
issues behind criminal behaviour as much as the crimes themselves.
Still, there is compelling evidence to suggest that community
programmes and penalties offer benefits to young offenders and
communities alike, not least the reduced cost to the taxpayer of
keeping young people out of prison.

There is a great deal of good work being done which does not hit
the headlines. A number of innovative programmes have been
developed since the YJB was created in 1998. One is the Intensive
Supervision and Surveillance Programme (ISSP), which provides
intensive supervision, five days a week for six months, for serious
young offenders as a direct alternative to custody. Early results
look promising.

The youth justice system is in a better state now than it was in
1998. But there are still too many young people in the system. One
reason is that police no longer have discretionary powers to give a
simple caution for minor offences, so a young person can find
themselves in a magistrates’ court much faster than in the past.
Once in the system, young people are statistically more likely to
reoffend and so the cycle begins.

Taking a more balanced perspective on low-level crimes such as
graffiti is not necessarily the soft option. Few adults would deny
that they may have broken the law in some minor way during their
teenage years. Most would agree that this behaviour was just a
“phase” that passed naturally as they got older. Common sense
dictates that a young person should not be condemned as a lifelong
criminal for a minor aberration in their teens.

The Shape coalition wants the youth crime debate returned to a
common sense level. It wants to promote a more pragmatic approach,
looking at what causes young people to offend and how they can be
prevented from reoffending. Importantly, we want to stop the
current trend towards talking about young people as criminals
before they have done anything to merit the stigma.

The Anti-Social Behaviour Bill before parliament is a clear example
of how the negative perceptions of young people are skewing our
approach to youth crime. In this bill, problems such as truancy are
tackled from the point of view of reducing crime rather than
improving behaviour or making school a place young people might
want to be. Under proposals for the dispersal of groups, two or
more young people out together are seen as a potential source of
trouble. This means that the police will have the power to move
them on before they have done anything wrong – and if they fail to
move on, they can be arrested.

At the launch of Shape a 16-year-old man from Nottingham pointed
out that the Anti-Social Behaviour Bill talks about protecting the
public, but people forget that young people are members of the
public too. It is alarming to note that somewhere in the public
discourse about youth crime, the rights of young people as citizens
seem to have been forgotten.

Shape is calling for support for communities so that they can work
together to build safer environments and prevent crime. Fundamental
to this is getting young people involved in their local community
rather than pushing them out. The fact is that young people often
have little to do and nowhere to go. Communities should work with
young people to look at how these problems can be solved to
everyone’s advantage.

The NCB believes passionately that young people should be involved
in all decisions about their lives. In this country children as
young as 10 are held as accountable as an adult for their criminal
behaviour. It is only right that they are also given the chance to
participate in a discussion about their lives. Shape is committed
to giving young people a voice in the youth crime debate and for
this reason a group of young people has been recruited to
participate in the campaign and to give a perspective. They are not
offenders, just young people with valid opinions and ideas about
issues that affect them.

Shape has a wealth of expertise, along with the ability to
influence youth crime policy. But Shape is not about the power of
the coalition, but rather the potential power of the campaign. It
is the nature of the public debate that we are seeking to change.
Less tabloid hysteria and more intelligent and pragmatic discussion
of the issues can benefit everyone involved in reducing youth crime
and helping young people, and ultimately making our communities

Paul Ennals is chief executive of the National
Children’s Bureau.


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