This week, the London Mayoral Office for Policing and Crime published research undertaken at Middlesex University into the development of support services for young people who have offended but have themselves been a victim of crime, abuse and violence. One of the authors of the report, Associate Professor in Criminology at Middlesex University Dr David Porteous, considers the issues raised by the study.
The ‘ideal victim’
In a famous book chapter penned in the mid-1980s, the Norwegian Criminologist Nils Christie coined the term the “ideal victim”. Observing that some people in some circumstances are much more readily ascribed the status of victim than others, Christie compared two imaginary victims: an elderly lady mugged by a large male stranger on her way home from caring for her sick sister, and a young man hit on the head and stolen from by an acquaintance in a bar. The former matches the profile of the “ideal victim” because she is weak, engaged in a respectable project, cannot be blamed for being on the street at the time and has fallen prey to someone big, bad and unknown. By contrast, sympathy for the young man is likely to be qualified by his relative strength and because he was drinking and knew the assailant. He was, one might say, looking for trouble.
In the real world, young men are of course much more likely to be victims than elderly ladies. Indeed, research dating back decades tells us that young people in general are both more likely to be victims of crime than adults and more likely to be victims than perpetrators. Perhaps more surprisingly, one’s chances of being a young victim are also statistically greater if one has offended and the reverse is also true, one is more likely to offend if one has been a victim. Confused? You should be. The real world is, um, not ideal and that, in part at least, is Christie’s point.
What though of childhood victims of adult physical and sexual abuse and/or violence? Do they not meet the criteria of the “ideal victim”? Do stereotype and reality not coincide in such cases? Well, yes and no. Yes, there are a number of children who have become household names for the worst of reasons – Peter Connolly; Madeline McCann; Victoria Climbié – and whose murders remain in the public memory because they conform to deep held notions of innocence versus barbarity. But also no. No because what we do with far too many children and young people who have been victims of abuse and violence perpetrated by adults, is to send them to prison.
Needless to say, this does not happen immediately. The evidence suggests that society frequently places young people who have been abused in care first and it is from there that many – as many as a third according to a recent study – graduate to custodial establishments. Nor, of course, does this happen without the young person in question kicking up some trouble and victimising others. If only they could have accepted their victim status more readily!
While a branch of conventional criminological theory tells us that for a crime to occur, there needs to be present an offender, a victim and a suitable target, this is of limited use when the offender and victim are the same person but in a different place and time.
The uncomfortable truth
The uncomfortable truth is that most of the 1,000 or so young people resident at Her Majesty’s pleasure on any one day in England and Wales have experienced, witnessed and/or suffered from crime, violence and abuse, and that’s before they get there. And, as with other young people who have been raped, beaten up, shouted at, robbed or bullied, a significant number – estimates suggest around a half – will have emotional and mental health problems resulting from this troubled history. In a small but not insignificant number of cases, young people in prison and serving community-based sentences have been assessed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Anxiety, depression, nightmares and self-harm are much more common. 290 young inmates aged under 21 have died in English and Welsh prisons since 1990 according to the government’s own figures; 264 took their own lives. On the street, meanwhile, young people in contexts characterised by on the one hand economic disadvantage and social exclusion, and on the other, hey, a booming drugs market, continue to assault, rape and attempt to kill each other, victims of circumstance.
What then can and should we do to better support the needs of young offenders who have themselves been victims of crime, abuse and violence? Within the youth justice system, the default response at present is to refer young people assessed as having emotional and health needs linked to victimisation and/or trauma to a mental health nurse or clinician. I say “refer” because it is more often than not the case that no formal response is forthcoming, due both to limited resources – child and mental health services have been subject to real term spending cuts since 2010 – and because young people themselves shy away from the prospect of seeing a shrink, due to the stigma attached or because they think ‘it’s not me that’s mad’.
Somewhat ironically, psychologists themselves question whether forms of treatment such as cognitive behavioural therapy are appropriate for young people who have been subject to abuse and violence, as there is evidence to suggest these negative experiences can inhibit cognitive and behavioural development such that they are not ready or able to engage with this level of intervention. From this perspective, more basic emotional and social needs have to be met first, including a sense of security and a semblance of normality, conditions unlikely to be met in a prison cell or psychologist’s chair.
Abstracting from individual needs and remedies, I would suggest we need to rethink our responses to youth crime. While a branch of conventional criminological theory tells us that for a crime to occur, there needs to be present an offender, a victim and a suitable target, this is of limited use when the offender and victim are the same person but in a different place and time. The labels ‘offender ‘and ‘victim’ do not adequately reflect the complex and difficult lives of those caught up in the web of the criminal justice system. We need to grow up, acknowledge the underlying problems, and show some compassion.