Leave those kids alone

Criminalising young people is counterproductive and creates lifelong offenders. Rather, we need a co

Where was law and order in the 2010 election? During the campaign, there were arguments about civil liberties, identity cards and immigration control. But the election was the first in over 30 years in which law and order barely figured. This is even more striking given that 2010 will go down as a political turning point.

In 1979, the Conservative Party made law and order central to its drive for power, capturing significant numbers of core Labour voters. In 1997, New Labour reversed the trick, overtaking the Tories on the right and distancing itself from Old Labour's law-challenging radicalism. Most of New Labour's effort went on the first half of its populist slogan "Tough on crime; tough on the causes of crime". Perhaps 2010 will signal a welcome cooling of the law-and-order party-political arms race.

No serious analyst of law-and-order policies believes that either the welter of new legislation that has afflicted our criminal justice system or the locking up of increasing numbers of offenders has made us safer in our beds at night. There is general agreement that the time has come to roll back our heavy use of criminal justice interventions and stop talking up the potency of criminal law to solve our social ills.

On 30 March, just over a month before polling day, Iain Duncan Smith argued in a speech at the Attlee Foundation in London that we could not "arrest our way out of our problems". At the same event, by contrast, Chris Grayling promised "robust policing", but he was not heard
of for the rest of the campaign. Grayling may not get it, but most politicians now do. They privately agree with the Treasury that a grave
financial crisis should not go to waste.

The major cuts in public spending in the policy pipeline provide an opportunity for us to stop doing a few things we should never have done - chief among them criminalising and locking up so many children and young people, thereby grooming a new generation of long-term adult criminals from whose depredations we will all suffer.

The trend is clear. Even though the volume of crimes, including those for which young people are responsible, has fallen since the mid-1990s, by 2007 there were more than twice as many children in custody as at the beginning of the 1990s. The increase is not explained by a corresponding rise in serious crime by children. Events such as the murder of James Bulger in February 1993 or the torture of two boys in Edlington, South Yorkshire, in April 2009, are thankfully rare. In that sense, Britain is no more broken today than it was 20 years ago.

Paying the price

Nor should we get hung up about offensive, antisocial behaviour committed by young people. That may have got worse, but no one seriously believes that the problem is best solved by putting already disaffected and typically disadvantaged youths behind bars. At roughly £100,000 a year, this costs more than three times as much as sending a child to Eton, and the outcome is not an enhanced prospect of becoming prime minister, but typically a lifelong relationship with the revolving door of Pentonville. As the former Conservative home secretary David Waddington confessed, it is an expensive way of making bad people worse.

So, how to save taxpayers money and better protect us from being victimised? It is a good first step that the plan to build a 360-bed young offender institution (YOI) outside Leicester has been scrapped. The proposal was undesirable and unnecessary. The youth custody population of England and Wales has fallen in the past two years from 3,000 to roughly 2,200. The surplus capacity this creates should allow the Youth Justice Board, which commissions custodial places for under-18s, to avoid unsuitable establishments. Indeed, it should be thinking about a completely different residential model.

The new government should now also do the following. First, a new agency should be created, separate from the prison service, to manage all accommodation for young offenders - the local authority secure homes, the commercially run secure training centres and the YOIs. This would make for coherent national planning, which is at present lacking.

This new agency should consider piloting a community-oriented institution along the lines of the proposed Young Offender Academy investigated over the past three years by a working party with the Foyer Federation, the support agency for youngsters making the transition to adulthood. We must keep the secure homes for younger children provided by local authorities. They are expensive, but they provide the sort of one-to-one care needed by children who have done dreadful things but are often both neglected and disturbed. In addition, we must explore an alternative model to the big YOI, an outmoded tool that should have been consigned to the penal dustbin.

Most of the cost of youth custody should be transferred from central government to the local authorities from which the young people come. This proposition has been pondered indecisively in Whitehall for several years. It must now be done. It would be the best way to give an incentive to the local authorities to invest in crime-preventive community programmes (research shows that confidence in these programmes is critical in persuading sentencers to avoid the use of custody). If this happened, a question mark would hang over the continued need for the Youth Justice Board.

The thousands of young people locked up each year spend, on average, 14 weeks in custody. It is wrong that a high proportion of them are held far from home, and unsurprising that the overwhelming majority are reconvicted within 12 months of getting out. Preventing youth crime involves determining responsibility and fixing consequences. But it also involves promoting positive, law-abiding opportunities and working with families as well as individual offenders - not further dislocating already fragile relationships. None of these processes is best achieved by transporting teenage offenders to large, distant, prison-like institutions.

Too much too soon

Finally, the conviction on 24 May of two boys aged ten and 11 on a charge of attempted rape of an eight-year-old girl should lead the government to reconsider the age of criminal responsibility. It is not in the interests of any child, either victim or offender, or society at large, that children as young as this undergo adversarial criminal justice proceedings. Such matters are, if necessary, better dealt with by the family courts and childcare proceedings.

Law-and-order services, which cost just under 6 per cent of overall public expenditure, are not going to be among the heaviest hit in the period 2011-2014. Policing, which claims the largest share of the pot, is too politically sensitive for that. But things are nonetheless going to be tough for front-line practitioners. There will be significant cuts. This makes it imperative that we shift the centre of expenditure gravity from that which is totemic to something that has a prospect of working

Rod Morgan was chairman of the Youth Justice Board from 2004-2007

Crime and punishment

Levels of youth crime have decreased overall since the early 1990s. However, during this time, there has been an increased use of custodial sentences for children and young people. In 1999, Home Office figures showed that while the level of detected youth crime had fallen by 16 per cent since 1992, custodial sentencing had more than doubled.

Tony Blair's establishment of the Youth Justice Board in 2000 continued this trend. While the government was keen to trumpet the success of its reform, a report by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies said that youth offending had barely changed, but more children had been criminalised or imprisoned. It is a vicious cycle: the same report found that reoffending rates were highest among those who had had a custodial sentence.

Recent years have brought a sharp decline in youth crime: a 10.2 per cent drop between 2005 and 2008. However, this figure fails to take account of more than 19,000 children and young people issued with penalty notices for disorder or antisocial behaviour orders. If such children were included, the 10.2 per cent drop would be nearly eliminated.

This points to a problem in the statistical analysis of youth crime, which is the changing definition of what constitutes a crime, and how harshly it is punished. Crime levels may be unchanged, but criminalisation is rising.

Samira Shackle

This article first appeared in the 21 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The age of ideas

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood