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Why do the young turn to crime? Early findings turn some theories on their heads


How and why do young people become criminals? Why do they become criminals? What can we do to change their lives? These are the vital, socially relevant questions that two major research programmes funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) aim to address. Through supporting such work, the ESRC underlines its commitment to social science and to informing policy frameworks.

Pathways into and out of Crime: Risk, Resilience and Diversity, is a network of six universities exploring aspects of young people’s lives linked to crime and anti-social behaviour. Led by Jean Hine of DeMontfort University, Leicester, and due to conclude in April, 2006, it has already involved two years of intense work, exploring issues primarily from the point of view of young people themselves.

A separate programme, approaching the subject from a different perspective, is the SCoPiC Network (Social Contexts of Pathways into Crime) - a major five-year investigation led by Professor Per-Olof Wikström of the University of Cambridge, into what kind of people in which sort of circumstances turn to crime. This is due to conclude in 2007.

Jean Hine’s Risk Resilience and Diversity Network, with total ESRC funding of £1.4 million, involved more than 1,000 10-18-year-olds in projects using a variety of approaches, from questionnaires to creating videos about their life in high crime neighbourhoods.

The findings call into question some commonly held views about why young people become involved in crime and show that situations often thought of as leading to problem behaviour can actually be the opposite. For instance, a parent being in prison may provide a respite from what may have been a chaotic home life.

They question also the inevitability of the link between drug use and crime, showing the complexity of this relationship and how offending can stop even though some kinds of drug use may continue.

And when it comes to interventions, Jean Hine said: “Young people’s comments suggest that, for them, people are more important than programmes. They value workers who listen and treat them fairly.”

Her report will show that young people often experience crime as victims and witnesses as well as offenders.

Where young people live is a key factor, and they know this. They understand the reputation of their neighbourhoods and its problems, and show considerable skill in managing their lives around them.

Work on the other major programme, the Cambridge-based SCoPiC Network, with total funding of £2.3 million, includes a five-year long investigation - the Peterborough Adolescent Development Study (PADS) – led by Professor Wikström.

Researchers are following a sample of 707 boys and girls who were 12 years old in March, 2003, right through until they reach the peak age for criminal activity, 14-15, in 2007. The aim is to examine how far crime can be explained, on the one hand by adolescents’ morality and ability to exercise self-control, and on the other by the social and moral environments in which they develop and operate.

Other SCoPiC research, the Sheffield Pathways Out of Crime Study (SPOOCS), at the University of Sheffield, is examining processes that influence whether or not young, adult, active offenders desist from crime.

Along with innovative studies, ESRC funding enables a range of activities, including international conferences and workshops which bring together experts from around the world to address this important topic.

Professor Wikström said: “National and local crime prevention policies are too often based on insufficient knowledge of the social and developmental processes that cause adolescents to get involved in crime and disorder.

“It is crucial that we do better research into this area. If not, our efforts to minimise adolescent crime and antisocial behaviour will continue to result mostly in failure.”

William Godwin | alfa
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