By Adnan Mouhiddin
Who is the young?
The Criminal Justice System in England and Wales recognises young people to be between the ages of 10-17 years, young adults 18-20 years and adults 21 years and over. Answering the question becomes crucial when we consider that the crime data differs in accordance with these different categories. For instance, of the total people sentenced for indictable offences in the year ending March 2016, 6% were young people, 9% were young adults and 85% were adults. The Youth Justice System in England and Wales works to ‘prevent offending and reoffending by young people under the age of 18’ (YJB, 2017:5).
The social reality of youth crime
In his book The Social Reality of Crime (1970), Richard Quinney contended that crime is a social and political construct. He also argued for the social reality whereby a human conduct that is considered as a crime by the social and political class in a given organised societies. Thus, crime is merely a behaviour which is defined as criminal by others when a given behaviour conflicts with the interests of those in power to create laws and form public policies. In line with Quinney findings, Muncie argues that ‘as the criminal law is in main directed against forms of behaviour associated with the young, the working class and the poor, we should not be surprised to find out that, officially, it is these groups that are found to be most criminal’ (1999:38).
Attitude in general towards young people and in particular those coming from working class has hardened (Hewlett, 1993). Over time, youth crime has become politicized and the rights of young people circumscribed (Goldson, 2005). This attitude towards young people was enhanced by the media’s demonization of the youth in their communities (McCauley 2006; Yates 2006). It was also affected by the media’s excessive focus on youth problems, such as drug use, vandalism, brawls and anti-social behaviour, whilst simultaneously overlooking corporate crime and ignoring that the social harm goes way beyond that caused by the original crime (Muncie 2009:155). Consequently, this economic and social polarisation amounted to more serious crimes in areas struggling with relentless economic and social deprivation despite the dropping of crime rates in the last twenty years (Bullock and Tilley, 2003). Crime and disorder in the poorest neighbourhoods became distinctive in that it is youthful, because the population is young, which resulted in both victims and perpetrators tending to be children and young people (Pitts, 2015). Moreover, crime in those areas is embedded thereby denying the young people an opportunity to grow out of crime by linking them with offences committed in their twenties and thirties (Pearson, 1988). This responds to the findings of the Children’s Commission for England, which identified poverty as ‘the single most pernicious influence that is blighting the lives and prospects of our young people’ (The Guardian, 2008). Describing in ‘Dark Heart’ how poverty impacted on a community in Leeds, Davies reported that:
“The way in which poverty has wounded this community are infinitely subtle. It has bruised the minds and the bodies of those who live with it, spoiling their health, undermining their self-respect, spreading hopelessness and sadness, loneliness and anxiety, provoking frustration and anger and crime and alcoholism and drug abuse, corroding all the fibre of daily life.” (1998:114)
We must be cautious with this approach though. While the association between crime and poverty is not well-founded, since most children growing in poverty are not involved in crime, it is however important to highlight that ‘there are higher victim and fear of crime rates in disadvantaged areas’ (Griggs and Walker, 2008:5) since the child’s exposure to crime will amount to emotional and behavioural difficulties. In other words, poverty shapes the young person’s experience of crime as an offender or as a victim (Yates, 2013).
This environment should not pass unnoticed. Coinciding with Quinney and Muncie on the social reality of crime, Chambliss and Seidman (1971) observed that a lot of the official criminal statistics involves the poor and ethnic minorities. However, they emphasise that this should not be attributed to an assumption that the aforementioned groups are more prone to criminality. Rather, they identified the lack the organizational resources to provide protection against prosecution as a main factor. These findings are still applicable today. In 2012, the Ministry of Justice reported that ‘for comparable offences, Black and Asian defendants were almost 20% more likely to be sent to jail than their white counterparts. And that ‘the average prison sentence for Black defendants was seven months longer than for whites’ (Pitts, 2015:38). Moreover, over the period since the year ending March 2006, the number of young people entering the youth justice system has fallen more slowly for BAME (young people who were from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic). While the numbers of white young people receiving a caution or conviction decreased by 7%, it increased for BAME young people by 6% (YJS, 2017).
Poverty, structural inequality and discrimination has all had an impact on the working-class community and the children and young people raised among them (Killeen, 2008). Young people from the disadvantaged families and poor communities are the majority of those caught in the revolving doors of the justice system (Goldson, 2001). Griggs and Walker (2008) also assert that poor children are more disadvantaged educationally. The Youth Justice Trusts support this, reporting in 2003 that low achievement at schools fosters in the young person feelings of being a failure, which subsequently ‘increases the likelihood of arrest by 90 per cent when compared to the norm’ (2003:22).
Is it really a game?
Should the reader demean the grave social reality of youth crime and merely consider it a game, the persistence of youth crime would defy such a hypothesis. The failure of the system is evidenced by the fact that the proportion of young people sentenced for indictable offences with a previous criminal history has been 74% in the year ending March 2016, and 37.9% of young people reoffended (YJB, 2017). Should crime be perceived as a game by the young offenders, reoffending rates would be different. This could be better understood if we shed some light on the impact of imprisonment on young people. The Prison Reform Trust reported in 2016 that 87% of deaths among young inmates aged 15-24 in the last 20 years were self-inflicted and ‘70% of people who died from self-inflicted means whilst in prison had already been identified with mental health needs’ (PRT, 2016).
The social reality of youth crime could also be traced in both the risk and desistance factors. What is meant by risk factors is the ‘variables that predict an increased probably of later offending’ (Kazdin et al., 1997). The Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development observed various variables to be risk factors, such as low intelligence influencing the ability to foresee consequences (Farrington and Welsh 2007), high scores of neuroticism (Farrington et al., 1982), impulsiveness, deemed by Farrington and Welsh as ‘the most crucial personality dimension that predicts offending’ (2007: 48) and family background. In terms of the latter, it was found that 63% of boys with convicted fathers had convictions themselves and those with fewer siblings were less likely to be convicted. Peer, schools and community influences were also identified as risk factors. Newburn observed that it is ‘far from straightforward’ to separate those factors (2007: 841). Those social and personal factors become more intrinsic in explaining the ones leading to desistance. Graham and Bowling (1995) research identified factors such as realizing that the act of offence was childish, life has changed, successful transition into adulthood, employment, long-term and stable relationships, finding sense of direction and meaning in life. Or as Fionda (2005) simply puts it: the absence of the factors that led them to commit the crime.
Furthermore, the question, which this paper is addressing, fails to realise that young people are themselves victims of crime. In line with the social reality explained above, to grow in deprived society, the young person is more likely to be subject to crime (Yates, 2013) and as a result becoming an offender himself (Hirsch, 2008). The fear of becoming a victim in disadvantaged and unstable neighbourhoods prompted many young people to join gangs as a mean of self-protection (Maher, 2009).
To postulate that crime is a young man’s game is also problematic on a conceptual ground. Other than failing to sufficiently identify who is the young man, which this paper tackled above, the statement does not give account to the gender of the young offender. This distinction is vital as the crime rate varies extremely between males (83% of the total arrests) and females (17% of the total). In addition, the statement does not take into account the particularities of some crimes such as terrorism, which is not perceived as crime by the perpetrators in the first place. While the media tends to portray it as a yearning for excitement and heroism, the research reveals deeper issues than mere excitement. To understand terrorism is ‘to study the direct causes of a terrorist: the interaction of an individual, his or her experience, skills, knowledge and other characteristics, with the circumstances of a particular setting’ (Bouhana, Wikstrom 2008). Such personal and social factors are also reasons that prompt some youth to join gangs. The influence of the code of the streets, the code of honour, crisis masculinity and machismo can all be identified in UK gangs (Maher, 2009). They develop in societies that struggle with social disorganization and lack of social opportunities (Spergel et al. 1994). The social reality of the gangs could also be traced in intervention methods that aim to prevent gangs. They include cognitive approaches that tackle violence as a way to communicate, and help the young people to creatively explore alternatives in their personal and social life (Ofsted 2004).
In 2002, the Social Exclusion Unit reported that young people in custody have encountered ‘a range of social factors’. Their 2004 report concurred with this, and identified that ‘the social class a child is born into and their parents’ level of education and health are still major determinants of their life chances’ (2004:10). The criminal youth are the victims of the existing social and political structure. In that sense, the statement as to whether crime is a young man’s game is not only a scientifically unfounded claim, but it is also an invalid generalisation that falls short of observing the actual and intrinsic factors behind the crime of the youth. Youth crime has become an outlet for many young people, rather than a game. It is also a direct manifestation of the social and psychological impact on the young people and their direct environment. The question also does not take in account the gender of the young offender, their age, the variety of crimes committed by them and their perspective on a given behaviour that is criminalised by the law and policy makers. Youth crime therefore cannot be considered a young man’s game. It is the reflection of a broken system and social and political structure that failed them, leading to social and behavioural dysfunction.
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