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10 March 2014

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.

By Dan Jarvis

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. 

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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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