Ecological Youth Justice: Understanding the Social Ecology of Young People's Prolific Offending


This study considers the work of youth offending teams (YOT) with repeat offenders. It advocates using a strengths-based, rather than a risk-based, approach to enable young people's positive development and reduce offending.

Authors Diana F Johns, Kate Williams and Kevin Haines

Published in Youth Justice (2017)

The authors explore literature around the importance of establishing and maintaining meaningful relationships in working with young offenders and outline the social-ecological approach needed to achieve this.

The usual approach taken to working with repeat youth offenders tends to focus attention and resources too narrowly on the "problem" areas in children's lives that are seen as directly related to offending. This negative narrative and framing of risk and deficit is "discouraging", focuses and reinforces young people's shortcomings and creates an ethos of suspicion and blame.

An alternative approach is to use the same principles that apply to working with young children when working with young people who are offenders. Such an approach involves building an effective practitioner/young person relationship and using it to support positive development, which is key to effective ways of working with this group. Relationships allow professionals to engage young people and open the door to foster and support motivation to change.

The study examines the function, role and impact of the relationships and interactions between YOT workers and young people involved in prolific offending. It explores the views of professionals and young people on ways of working which see young people in terms of their relationships with their immediate environment of family, friends, school and neighbourhood, as well as the wider socio-cultural, political-economic context. More specifically, the study:

  • Examined young people's prolific offending in Wales in two separate time periods. In 2012, researchers identified 303 young people who were "prolific" offenders - defined as being convicted of 25+ offences - and profiled 117 of those. A follow-up study in 2016 examined contextual factors and reoffending among that sample. The analysis included interviews with professionals and young people, exploring the support and services that helped them move away from offending.
  • Reports the experiences of 11 young men and one young woman from this original cohort in greater depth. Information was collected through interviews and case file data. These 12 young people, now aged 21-24, were representative of their peer group in gender, ethnic background and offending-related issues.

Study findings

The young people lived in a semi-rural, deindustrialised community in Wales. The information on the young people and their social, cultural and community setting revealed a series of common factors, which were also typical of the larger cohort in relation to:

  • The development and perpetuation of negative perceptions of the young people in the settings of school, agencies and community
  • The lack of supportive family relationships, negative childhood experiences and drug abuse
  • Relationships with the offending peer group which, though "problematic", offer a sense of belonging.

Despite the negative interactions experienced by these young offenders within the wider community, young people perceive their relationships with the YOT as supportive, with professionals willing to engage, providing encouragement, recognising success, and setting clear and tight boundaries and expectations. All of these were reported as positive and desirable by the young people interviewed.

Contact with the YOT was close and frequent, over a long period of time and often focused on practical work and activities.

A key focus of YOT workers was building young people's independence. To facilitate this, YOT workers strove to build relationships with the community and parents, including through the provision of advocacy services.

The ways in which young people described YOT supporting change included:

  • Opening up access to opportunities
  • Helping to (re)build social relationships
  • Supporting positive connections with agencies and community resources
  • Generating alternative (pro-social) activities to fill time otherwise spent offending
  • Fostering interests and strengths.

Implications for practice

  • There is a need to move away from practice that conceives young people involved with the youth justice system in terms of their problems, deficits and pathologies. Such an approach is too focused on assessing and addressing risks individually in order to interrupt persistent offending patterns, such as offering substance misuse programmes.
  • Instead, effective work should be strengths-based and:
  • Grounded in a trusted and meaningful relationship with young people, built over time
  • Allow sufficient time to understand the interplay of a young person's relationships and interactions that define and influence their everyday lives and experiences and what is important to them
  • Offer strategies to counteract negativity in young people's lives
  • Model and convey respect, empathy, acceptance, honesty and authenticity.
  • Relationships underpin young people's engagement, compliance and, ultimately, leaving offending behind. This was the case for some of the young people interviewed in this study. However, change requires time.

The research section for this special report is based on a selection of academic studies which have been explored and summarised by Research in Practice, part of the Dartington Hall Trust

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