Make me a criminal

7 Mar 2008 by Karl Hallam

Make Me a Criminal: Preventing youth crime is the latest in a series of ippr reports on young people that have caught the eye. Cadence Network member, Jeremy Cushing says it is 'fascinating' and 'much more open about the reasons for youth offending than government reports'. Here he gives his personal take on it as someone who has been an 'appropriate adult' for a number of years.

IPPR's take on youth offending is a fascinating trawl through a vast body of research on what makes kids criminals. (However, the appendix made my brain hurt.) Its basic thrust is that the ASBO approach doesn't work very well. Speaking from the perspective of an amateur in the youth offending world, this fits with experience. A typical boy or girl taken to the police station, whose parents either won't or can't go with them (which is the experience of an ‘appropriate adult' volunteer under Police and Criminal Evidence Act procedures), is likely to be, at bottom, totally desperate. (They often cover up, with a variety of practised role plays: defiant, confiding, careless, promising to amend, abusive, and so on. But one feels that almost certainly the bottom line is existential despair.) They have very little to lose and nothing much to gain (from their perspective). Consequently attempts to reform their behaviour by threatening adverse consequences simply bounce off. They include, of course, a high proportion of the most damaged children, those whose families have failed them (for whatever reason).

Add to this the evidence documented by this report that adolescents don't have very good mental equipment in any case when it comes to judging the consequences of their actions, and it should have been obvious all along that a punitive approach to youth offending was unlikely to work. (I may say that as a teacher for 30 years I experimented with a wide range of strategies for making children conform: invariably, the ones that involved them doing what I wanted or suffering bad consequences failed miserably. Even a healthy child will cheerfully damage their own future rather than give in to coercion.)

The report therefore recommends more supportive approaches. It lists a number which have been found to work. The successful ones involve enormous expenditure of attention by adults, but when you set the costs against consequent gains the latter tend to dominate. One scheme had a 7:1 payback. Effects can go on well into adult life and involve not just less criminality but better mental health outcomes and even higher incomes.

IPPR is much more open about the reasons for youth offending than government reports can be, in that it repeatedly refers to the effects of poverty and inequality as causes of youth crime and ‘anti-social behaviour'. Even so, the report restricts itself almost entirely to recommending a range of specific remedies, rather than accepting that we suffer from a radically unfair society and this is the main reason for most of our social ills. That is still something the politicians (of any major party) cannot admit: presumably because they would then have to do something about it. The IPPR report lists things they might do: but taken all together the programme would be so expensive (in the short term, that is) that it could only be adopted as part of a significant redistribution of wealth in our society.

So what seems to be needed, rather than more research on the finer details of what causes children to behave in uncomfortable ways, is research into why our political system continues to fail so badly.

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