In the Media

Why evicting families or cutting benefits won't cut youth crime

PUBLISHED November 15, 2011

Forget punitive measures, the only way to change an offender is from within, says Mark Johnson There's only one way to cut youth crime. Chucking families out of social housing because their teenager has misbehaved won't do it. Neither will increasing fines for those on benefits. Nor will cutting benefits. All these punitive measures that the government favours will not work. The only way to change an offender is from within. User Voice recently used a weekend to do the opposite of government policy. What's Your Story?, a privately-funded project targeted at young people inside the youth justice system, had nothing punitive about it. Seven hundred youngsters took part, and 150 of these went on to participate in focus groups. From these groups, they chose 25 representatives to take part in the Youth Justice Board (YJB) annual conference. It was a chance to tell their stories to the adults who run youth justice; from a minister ? Crispin Blunt, prisons and youth justice ? to frontline youth offending teams. (It was a shame the minister could not stay to hear about the lives of the young people his government wants to help.) The children were hungry to be heard. It was the first time anyone had listened to them and asked for solutions. It had a significant effect on them. Many had long ago given up hope of living a life inside society's margins. Scandalously, crimes committed by children as young as 11 remain long enough on a record to jeopardise their employment prospects ? so once a child has taken the wrong direction, changing course in later life can be almost impossible. I believe that every sentence is a life sentence of stigma. A life sentence by instalments. And young people know it, too. Britain's acute youth unemployment, disadvantage, poor education and criminal record policy effectively mean that we now have 11-year-olds on the scrapheap. Turning their parents out of social housing is not going to help them. Many of the young people who took part in the What's Your Story? project fell into the youth justice system after getting lost in the no-man's-land that awaits those who drop out of school. Once in the system it was punitive, not therapeutic. While all accepted responsibility for what they had done, many accounts referred to a significant "older", who had led or mentored them in crime. Intensive supervision orders were regarded as positive, introducing discipline into their lives but, they said, not enough was being done to help them examine the reasons for their antisocial behaviour, and to change it. Every aspect of the project was managed by ex-offenders ? there is no other way to access the lives and minds of the marginalised than by utilising the skills of those who have been there too. The chair of the YJB, Frances Done, announced at the conference that the organisation will review its employment policies to recognise the positive contribution that ex-offenders who have changed their lives can have on troubled young people, whether in youth offending teams on the street or at policy level. Even better, the YJB will be examining how criminal records impact on the employment prospects of former young offenders. I hope it will result in revisions to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act and remove that lifetime of stigma. You may think it was terrifying to take 25 "feral youth" away for the weekend. But their behaviour was exemplary: they saw a chance, at last, to be involved. In effect, they demonstrated that the only way to cut crime is to listen to young offenders and help them dismantle their behaviour from the inside: by investing in their lives instead of closing down their options. ? Mark Johnson, a rehabilitated offender and former drug user, is an author and the founder of the charity User Voice. Youth justice Prisons and probation Mark Johnson © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds