Just in time for the government’s new youth crime plan, comes fascinating research from Manchester University, who’ve taken the trouble to work closely with young people involved in gangs. What they’ve found challenges the picture normally painted of gangs, suggesting that the police approach is ‘fatally flawed’ and risks pushing young people into the arms of gangs.

The researchers (lead by Judith Aldridge and Juanjo Medina), found that gangs were not highly organised drug-dealing operations.

"In reality, gangs are loose, messy changing friendship networks less
organised and criminally active than widely believed with unclear,
shifting and unstable leadership."

(Podcast, and Guardian coverage here)

While gang members were more likely to commit crimes than non-gang members, they weren’t universally involved in crime, and most of their criminal acts were fairly minor. 63% of gang members had committed a crime in the past year, mostly cannabis use, small amounts of dealing and theft. Compare this with the fact that 24% of all 16-24 year olds have used an illegal drug in the past year (and 45% have used one ever).

The Manchester team found that the police response of identifying youngsters as gang members, simply for associating with other people they believe to be in gangs, causes an ‘us versus them’ mentality which drives young people further into the gang. Also, that these young people, living in socially excluded communities, are more frequently victims of violence than perpetrators.

"Young people in gangs and their friends suffer considerable and sometimes horrifying trauma. But official responses to young people in gangs has been primarily to see them as perpetrators of crime."

are mainly victims. So there is a desperate need to appropriately
assess the needs of these young people and their families – and not
blame them."

It just goes to show, yet again, that young people are overly-demonised. And it doesn’t help. We hear it over and over in I’m a Councillor: young people get it from both sides. They are afraid of crime (as they are the primary victims of youth violence), they feel marginalised, distrusted by adults and criminalised just for hanging out. If we actually listen to them, rather than treating them as internal barbarians, we might work out better ways to tackle social problems.

Of course it’s not just the Police’s problem; politicians and the media have a part to play. I’ll leave you with a couple of quotes from the Metropolitan Police Authority’s Youth Scrutiny report.

"A balanced portrayal of young people that includes their civic
engagement and positive activities in the press is needed to address
intergenerational tensions."

Or, to put it another way, "If you closed down the Evening Standard tomorrow the fear
of crime would plummet." (Lewisham Youth Offending Team)


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