Youth crime and anti-social behaviour is a major problem in many communities throughout Britain and government strategies for tackling it must be more in touch with reality. Anti-social young people often gather on the streets seeking excitement and, aided by the latest mobile phone technology, quickly recruit others wanting to join in and become part of an aggressive and threatening group. In some neighbourhoods innocent people are being attacked, including emergency workers, and life is becoming intolerable for residents and ordinary people using the streets. Recent research (1) indicates that one in five of the population says that rowdy and aggressive teenagers had a 'fairly big' or 'big' impact on their lives. What do radical social workers have to say about this state of affairs?
Warnings that the Youth Justice System is in crisis always lead to intense debate but the question of whether the present system is cost-effective does not get properly addressed. The amount of time and money spent by the Police, Courts and social workers in dealing with juvenile offenders is enormous but in England and Wales the number of offences committed by youths has risen by a fifth and violent offences by a third in three years. Radical thinking is needed to get the system working more effectively.
Middle class liberals have always had a major influence on policies and politics surrounding young people and crime. They favour welfare approaches which avoid the criminalisation of petty offenders and are against the use of custody. Many are highly critical of recent developments such as Anti-Social Behaviour Orders which they claim are authoritarian. They believe that family support is the key to reducing offending.
However, the question of state support for the family in our society is particularly complex. It should not be forgotten that services providing 'support' also have the powers to 'control', if necessary. Parents may be under enormous pressures but state support seems increasingly to contain authoritarian overtones of the 'nanny state'. At the same time the state has actively promoted children's rights and the notion that the interests of the child come first. State agencies working with families therefore have to perform a difficult balancing act. It takes great skill and judgement to achieve an appropriate balance between support and control and social workers often find themselves at the centre of many conflicting pressures.
The government promotes social work intervention with families on the assumption that children who offend are invariably children in need. Policies of prevention and early intervention are forever being presented as new initiatives although they are really more of the same. For example, a recently anounced pilot scheme for children at risk of becoming criminals aims to combine care and control through youth workers who are 'persistent and committed'. It seems that youth workers are being asked to engage uncooperative parents, put right an unsatisfactory home life, teach parenting skills, engage young people in activities, while also tackling the grinding poverty and hardship underlying many family problems. To be effective these workers would need to change the attitudes and values of the parents over many years. Clearly, they are being given an impossible task.
It is inevitable that social workers dealing with children and young people in trouble tend to favour 'softer' approaches, rather than punitive ones. However, this sets them apart from working class people who know the terrible effects that troublesome youths on the streets can have on ordinary people and communities. Social workers may try to act as mediators but come up against a community that has lost faith in the whole youth justice system.
The middle class often has no understanding of the effect of crime on law-abiding residents in deprived urban areas. Instead they choose to focus on the gross inequality in society which they believe is at the root of much criminal behaviour. While they are right to emphasise the wider socio-economic context, they invariably resist policies to reduce inequality, presumably out of self-interest. In addition, they want communities to recognise the importance of 'caring' for young offenders but they choose not to live in these communities themselves.
The working class is aware that persistent offenders who blight their communities appear untouchable and that those who commit crimes are sometimes dealt with more sympathetically than the victims. Not all working class people are in favour of the popular punitivism which appears in the tabloids but they do expect the state to provide a system of welfare and policing which maintains civilised society. They want young offenders to be helped but they also believe that vicious or persistent criminals should be taken out of society, for the protection of the law-abiding majority.
The widening gulf between middle class liberals and the working class exposes a fundamental weakness in the present system. Society as a whole needs to help children mature and learn about their responsibilities. It should support parents so that they give clear and consistent messages to their children that anti-social behaviour is unacceptable. However, muddled thinking and incompetence has resulted in a situation where society is divided and many children are being given the wrong messages. Ordinary people are now too frightened to take action to keep young people in line. Hence, gangs of youths are now taking over the public space in many urban areas of Britain and no-one seems to know what to do about it.
A coherent penal policy must encompass a range of appropriate punishments, including custody for serious and dangerous criminals. A major problem in dealing with offenders is the limited powers of the youth court. Consequently, some offenders appear in court repeatedly which is counter-productive and they perceive community punishment as being 'let off'. The introduction of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders was a reasonable attempt to get tough with some young people who could not be helped by existing orders but the effectiveness of ASBOs was reduced once they were viewed as a 'badge of honour'.
Traditionally, residential care played a much larger part in the treatment of juvenile delinquents than it does today. The huge reduction in residential care for young offenders over the past thirty years (places fell by over a half between 1971 and 1991) has been a significant factor in increasing pressures on schools and communities. While the aim of keeping offenders in their families is a good one there will always be some children and young people whose needs are better met outside the family. Unfortunately, residential children's homes now find it increasingly difficult to perform a 'compensatory parenting' role because chronic under-funding has turned them into little more than a dumping ground for hard to place children.
Faced with children who suffer poor parenting social workers may offer a package of support services but the core problem of family dysfunction may persist. Children whose developmental needs are not being met satisfactorily have many problems and these may include the failure to develop a capacity for concern for others as well as anti-social behaviour. In some cases the child presents increasingly challenging and provocative behaviour and family relationships eventually reach breaking point. When a family is failing in this way the offer of a place in residential school might open up the possibility of a genuinely preventive approach that not only meets the child's needs for nurturing and stability but also works to rebuild relationships with parents on a more healthy basis.
There is also the problem of meeting the developmental needs of some young people in care who are very disturbed and repeatedly reject whatever kind of help is offered. These youngsters put an enormous strain on foster carers and it is not surprising that placement breakdowns are frequent. In fact, it may be unfair to expect that foster carers, however well trained or supported, should have their lives turned upside down by these young people and it may be better if the burden of care is shared by a team of workers, as it is in a residential setting.
Social work approaches to preventing youth crime must include a range of approaches. However, we need to get outside the current orthodoxy of opposing residential care and begin to think imaginatively about what good residential care might be like. Radical thinking is needed if confidence in the youth justice system is to be restored.
(1) Anti-social behaviour strategies: Finding a balance, Andrew Millie, Jessica Jacobson, Eraina McDonald and Mike Hough (Joseph Rowntree Foundation) (June 2005) The Policy Press.
The Challenge of Youth Violence - My article exploring issues and solutions.
Neglected option - Article in The Guardian showing that residential schools such as that provided by the Mulberry Bush School do excellent work but funding problems threaten their future.
Community penalties 'laughed at' - BBC report on a study which finds the credibility of community sentences is suffering because courts are not tough enough on those who breach their conditions.
One crime committed every two minutes by British youths - Article in The Telegraph with the latest youth crime figures.