‘It’s a no-win scenario, either the police or a gang will get you’ Young People and Organised Crime – Vulnerable or Criminal?

Much of recent media coverage concerning young people has been on issues related to violence and crime, with knife-crime, child sexual exploitation and county lines especially high on the agenda.

Young people who are vulnerable, lonely or have learning difficulties are especially targeted by organised crime groups. Picture: Adobe Stock
Young people who are vulnerable, lonely or have learning difficulties are especially targeted by organised crime groups. Picture: Adobe Stock
  • Dr Naomi Thompson
  • Goldsmiths, University of London (2019)

There is still relatively little known about the potential causes, scale, reach and related consequences of some of the causes and complexities in these often overlapping areas, although there is greater attention being paid. One thing that is increasingly clear is that networks of Organised Criminal Gangs (OCG) are central to these areas.

In January 2020, the chair of the National Police Chief’s Council (NPCC) identified the need for more youth workers, with a surge in gang-related killings since 2014. The children’s commissioner for England warned that county lines and gangs are fuelling the rise in thousands more children in care. The government will bring forward its proposals in the forthcoming Serious Violence Bill.

Youth work principles and practice is identified in the synthesised qualitative research from the perspective of young people published by Dr Naomi Thompson, the report’s findings justify a focus not on penal consequences and punitive measures, but on support and rehabilitation.

Key findings

Grooming and exploitation

The involvement of young people in organised criminal activity often takes place over a long period, and through the subtle gaining of “trust” and “loyalty” via gifts from criminals on the outskirts of organised crime groups. Young people who are vulnerable, lonely or have learning difficulties are especially targeted due to being more likely to want to form relationships with exploiters. Once that trust and relationship is formed the victims are asked to perform increasingly exploitative tasks which integrate them further into organised crime gangs (OCG) leaving them in “debt” and exploits the young person further, with peer influence and pressure being the primary method.

Opportunity and family

Prime motivators for young people’s involvement in OCG included money, social status, sense of belonging, power, dignity and protection; in the current economic context there are a lack of alternative opportunities for some young people. One practitioner said the biggest practice challenge is how to offer young people in deprived areas with few support networks real alternatives to “making a bit of money from running”. Indeed many young people will become involved in OCG to help provide for their family.

Preventative interventions need to involve a range of agencies, with basic safeguarding forming the foundation, supporting young people to walk away from criminal activity, when they have so little to lose, in particular if they already have a criminal record or may place their family members at risk of harm.

Supportive interventions

Drug running is the most common entry route for young people into gangs and the traditional view of seeing the young person caught up in an OCG as a “criminal” is harmful. Rather a reframing of viewing the young people caught up as being exploited and a victim should be the way forwards, with a consequent shift away from punitive to supportive measures and rehabilitation.

The most concrete suggestions from young people for what someone might be able to leave their involvement with organised crime for were employment or education opportunities, with some skills being transferable – for example, sales skills from drug running, although they recognised a need for support to achieve this outcome.

For young people the support needed to be identified as coming from someone “on their side” and ideally a relatable role-model from the community – although the motivation for change often needed the catalyst of a critical moment, such as for one young participant who became a mother.

Implications for practice

  • The highest rates of success need relationship-based practice with the opportunity for long-term support from a key worker for young people who are vulnerable to involvement with crime. The relationship with a youth worker should stem from identification of vulnerable young people or those already being groomed, through to continuous support, especially where this is a “critical moment”. Those key workers are more likely to have an impact as a role-model if they are relatable and of the same community.
  • This is further evidenced in the NYA report “Responding to Youth Violence through Youth Work” (2019) in support of detached youth workers and the use of “on-road” support workers who combine youth work skills with an understanding of criminology, including the language, behaviour and dress code of gangs, to support young people in communities affected by gang violence. They do so by gaining the “acceptance, approval and permission” with credibility to forge trusted relationships.
  • Gang members will substitute a sense of belonging, for safety and security. At its heart, providing a safe space in the community and a trusted adult, who knows what is needed, are the principles of good youth work.
  • The potential impact on a young person’s family is often the most effective deterrent to prevent them being caught up in OCG, and a catalyst to young people already involved in cutting ties.

Click here for more in CYP Now's Youth Work Special Report

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