A masked youth walks up to the police line in Goulton Road with a Molotov cocktail on August 8, 2011 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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To stop youth crime before it starts, we need to shift power to communities

Instead of assuming that politicians have the answers, we should engage with the most affected areas and put local people in charge.

An innocent bystander in London was recently shot dead after being mistaken for a member of a rival gang. The attacker casually drew a gun from his pocket and shot the victim through a shop window. Another senseless attack led to the serious injury of a young boy in prison. Two inmates distracted prison officers while a group of other boys viciously set upon a young man sitting alone at a table.

If we want to stop this kind of violence, we need to understand what causes it in the first place. Young men who carry out acts of serious violence are often experiencing deep-rooted problems. Research shows that the majority of youths in custody are themselves victims of abuse. The figures are staggering: 71% of young offenders have been involved with or were in the care of social services; one in four boys report suffering violence at home; one in 20 report having been sexually abused; and a third have a recognised mental health disorder. The struggle many of these children have experienced so early in their short lives is a key factor in their violent criminal behaviour.

That does not mean that young people who commit crime are not personally responsible for their actions. The public have a right to be protected and to know that those who do wrong will face the consequences of the law. But it’s better to prevent violence in the first place than to deal with the consequences of it afterwards.

This government inherited a legacy of falling youth crime thanks to the last Labour government’s investment in reforms like the Youth Justice Board and Sure Start, which only started paying dividends towards the end of the 2000s. Yet it would be foolish to take that progress for granted. Youth reoffending rates remain unacceptably high, with 7 out of 10 young offenders reoffending within 12 months of leaving custody.

We now know a lot more about the circumstances and behaviours that lead to offending. For example, three quarters of young offenders have an absent father, and 84 per cent have been excluded from school. Being the younger sibling of a gang member is also a reliable predictor of youth violence.  Most young people become members of gangs not out of a desire to commit violence but as a result of coercion, peer pressure, the need for protection or simply to fit in. 

Young people starting life in circumstances like these do not share the hope of a good job, a decent home to live in, or a stable family to belong to that the vast majority of young people in our country can expect. This absence of positive opportunities can lead some young people into criminality. Youngsters moving out of custody into accommodation and a placement in education, training or employment are less likely to reoffend. If you put a young offender back into the unchanged circumstances they came from they are likely to offend again. If you change those circumstances, they may not. That’s why it’s so important to involve the whole community that is affected by violent youth crime in tackling its root causes. 

On the Myatts Field Estate in Brixton, a group of parents and ex-offenders came together to do something about extremely high levels of youth gang violence there. They all knew teenagers who had been victims or perpetrators of knife and gun attacks. They set up a range of activities to support their own young people, including a football league, cookery, and taking young people on visits to open their eyes to the opportunities around them. Over three years, with almost no public funding, they got 80 young people out of gangs. The community showed how their own insights and their ability to reach the young people involved could help to tackle the problem. Instead of leaving communities like this to struggle alone, we need to give them access to public resources so they can do even more. 

Hackney’s Integrated Gangs Unit brings communities and professionals together to find interventions that work.  Lambeth’s new youth services trust, the Young Lambeth Co-operative, gives communities access to the professionals and public resources they need to make a real difference.  Owned by the community, and with young people making up half the governing board, the trust works with individual neighbourhoods and tailors support in line with what each community wants, opening the door to creativity and innovation. 

The key to stopping violent crime before it happens is to engage the communities that are affected by it, including the young offenders, and get them to work alongside the professionals to steer young offenders’ lives back on track. This is what Ed Miliband was talking about when he called for a people-power revolution in our public services by giving people a bigger say in the decisions that affect them.  

We need a different approach to solve complex social problems like youth violence. Instead of assuming that politicians have the answers or that we can implement the same blanket approach everywhere, we need to shift power into the most affected communities and put local people in charge. 

Dan Jarvis MP is the shadow minister for youth justice, Steve Reed MP is the shadow minister for home affairs

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear