Getting underneath the latest youth crime statistics

By Sonia Sodha

| 29 May 2012

Last week the Home Office recently published new research suggesting that young people aged 10-17 account for 23% of police-recorded crimes – despite only making up one in 10 of the general population aged over 10. There is a danger that these statistics are used as yet more fodder for the media’s obsession with feral youth and yob culture.

This snapshot is one way of looking at it. But it’s more interesting to think about what this tells us about crime across the lifecourse. What it suggests is that relatively few young people who commit crimes when they are in their teens go onto become hardened criminals for the rest of their life.

This fits with what criminologists have been writing about for years: the fact that there are two patterns of youth offending behaviour; what the experts call ‘adolescent-limited’ and ‘lifecourse-persistent’.

Adolescent-limited antisocial behaviour crops up when young people are in their teens. It’s often as a result of young people being influenced by who they’re mixing with and what type of behaviour wins them kudos in their social group. It makes sense when you think of how the human brain develops – the parts of the brain that are responsible for moderating risk-taking and thrill-seeking don’t fully develop until the late teens.

Lifecourse-persistent antisocial behaviour manifests itself earlier on, and is linked to risk factors that can operate much earlier in a child’s life – like poor parenting, abuse and neglect, and medical health conditions like ADHD.

Of course, that’s not to say both types of youth offending aren’t equally serious. When normal teen eagerness to take risks, challenge boundaries and copy their peers transcends into youth offending the results can be just as horrific.

But recognising there are different types of youth offending is crucial in understanding how to reduce youth crime. For example, failing to understand the importance of who young people mix with can do a lot of damage. One US-based programme, Scared Straight, seeks to reduce youth crime by taking groups of young people at risk of offending into prisons to talk to serious offenders. It’s been found that this programme actually increases youth crime – partly because it introduces teenagers to other young people like them, which reinforces their problem behaviour!

What’s the lesson? We need to challenge those who peddle the myth that all young people that display criminal behaviour in their youth are on a fast track to becoming adult criminals. It doesn’t just do our young people a disservice – who,after all, are four times more likely than adults to be victims of crime. It gets in the way of reducing youth crime.

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