We need to talk about violent youth offending

August 21, 2019   By Pawda Tjoa, Senior Researcher, NLGN

Levels of violent youth crime on our streets have never been so high. Over the last four years, the number of these offences has increased by 34%.

This is also reflected in the New Local Government Network’s latest Leadership Index survey, with over 60% of our 207 respondents – who were council chiefs, leaders and mayors – reporting a rise in violent youth offending in their area over the last five years. Particularly in urban areas, drug offences and gang-linked violence were among the top three offences that have risen most over this period.

The immense scale of the problem has led to plans in some councils to demolish parking garages and entire streets believed to be breeding grounds of gang and drug activities. Desperate times call for desperate measures. While such measures illustrate the severity of the problem, it will be a mistake to think that demolition of physical structures would solve the problem. It will only move the problems elsewhere.

Instead, we need to target the root causes of rising violent youth offending and this requires a better understanding of the problem as well as better partnerships between the different agencies.

Research by the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime found that some of the biggest increases were in areas where councils have made the largest spending reductions on youth services.

The Commons home affairs committee found that £1bn youth cuts have contributed to the rise in violence. The committee also highlighted safeguarding systems that are too narrowly focused on risks inside the family home, rather than in the wider community, and the patchy provision of support that does not meet the needs of the whole person. This perhaps stems from our tendency to pigeonhole young people within their own age group rather than seeing them as full members of society with multiple needs. A change in perspective is crucial to ensure that youth services are designed to prepare young people to be an active part of their community.

Changes to family structures and support networks have led to growing isolation among young people in recent times. In the case of a family breakdown, for example, the absence of good role models in the family during a young person’s formative years makes them especially vulnerable to gang involvement. Youth services have the challenge of filling this void in a young person’s life. Some councils have introduced mentoring schemes that aim to establish long-term friendships between the young person and an adult and this has proven to be an effective preventative approach that involves the wider community.

Many young offenders have had a traumatic life, been in care, experienced substance dependencies or have mental health issues. In fact, looked-after children make up 33% of boys and 61% of girls in custody. The lack of a consistent support framework between children’s services and adult services can mean care leavers do not receive the critical support to help them transition into a more independent life without resorting to crimes or engaging with illegal networks. Better collaboration between different teams, and with external agencies would help develop a more holistic package of services.

The government has set out a number of pledges in recent months but are they enough to reverse the trend in violent youth offending? The Youth Endowment Fund launched in 2018, which provides £200m to support early interventions to prevent young people from becoming serious offenders, is a step in the right direction.

The new public health duty which requires councils and other public sector bodies to tackle serious violence appears sensible but without any additional funding dedicated to this effort, cash-strapped councils are having to deal with expanded responsibilities with significantly reduced resources.

In fact, our latest survey reveals that, despite a real desire to target prevention, councils across the UK are struggling to adopt this approach and ultimately, address the crisis, given insufficient levels of government funding.

This article first appeared in The Local Government Chronicle on 21st August 2019.

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