July 16 2018

Tackling London’s epidemic of youth violence

Nicola Coleman is a full-time PhD student in Criminology at Middlesex University, London. Her research focus is on understanding the relationship between family life and youth offending behaviour. Here, Nicola shares her thoughts on the culture of youth violence in London, as well as insights from Junior Smart, a former youth offender now studying for a PhD at Middlesex.

With the increasing level of violent crime in London, and with a significant proportion of this rise in violence concerning young people, it is of great concern how we, as a society, need to proceed to protect the future of the capital. I recently attended a fascinating debate, hosted by EQ Investors, titled How to tackle London’s epidemic of youth violence. From the discussions that took place, I wanted to write this article to draw attention to the main points raised, and the solutions that were suggested as the way forward.

Since the early 1990s, the approach taken towards youth offending behaviour, and young people more generally, has become both very punitive and individualised. By this, I mean, that young people are increasingly being made fully responsible for their actions (responsibilisation), and as such, we are treating them in much the same way as we do adults (adulterisation) (Case, 2018). These terms have been used to demonstrate and explain how the perception of children and young people has shifted over the past 20 years; from one concerned with welfare, justice and diversion, to a very punitive and ‘tough on crime’ attitude.

The irresponsible-responsible child

As such, there has developed this paradox in society of the ‘irresponsible-responsible child’; one who is “…unable to make significant life decisions until the age of 16, but held fully responsible for offending behaviour from the age of 10” (2018: 39); exemplified by the minimum age of criminal responsibility being set at age 10 in England and Wales, and the many pieces of legislation restricting such behaviours as driving, voting and sexual relationships to much higher age restrictions.

Towards the end of the twentieth century, and moving into the twenty-first century, we saw a ‘punitive turn’ (Case, 2018). Increasingly, young people’s behaviour (whether criminal/violent/other) is being understood in individualistic terms, with the blame being placed on the individual, rather than on any external factors, and most definitely doesn’t seem to concern any societal/economic/structural factors.

The result? A youth justice system massively preoccupied with identifying ‘risk factors’ that may predispose a young person to (re)offend; offering interventions and programmes to tackle these risk factors and encourage the young person to ‘change their ways’. But what if the situations that these young people find themselves in are impossible to get out of? What if the situations that these young people find themselves in are all they have ever known, and to them are ‘normal’? These are the kind of questions that are now becoming reality within the youth crime and justice scene; posing new challenges, and increasing the level of response and intervention that may be required to help and support these young people.

So how do we help these young people?

And by extension, how do we begin to tackle the epidemic of youth violence that seems to be sweeping the streets of London currently?

One of the guest speakers from this event was Junior Smart, an ex-offender and current Middlesex University PhD student. His journey of change is remarkable and perhaps shows what can happen when the rehabilitation ideals of some of our counter nations who have been successful in reducing incarceration and violence levels is provided with an opportunity.

“I came to work at St Giles Trust in September 2006.  It was my first day out of prison and – ironically – I found myself returning to the gates to support a young man on his release.  I was determined to help break the cycle of gangs, violence and prison that so many young men – like myself at one point – were caught up in… Through St Giles Trust, I set up the SOS Project to give the young men and women a legitimate escape route and help to get their lives on track.”

12 years down the line and the SOS Project has grown to become one of London’s largest ex-offender projects offering intensive, tailored one-to-one practical and emotional support to young people in need of help. With around 30 staff – most with convictions – it is an employer of those with criminal records but also has a strong reach into those with entrenched criminal lifestyle choices. It continually reaches its target of 600 young people involved in criminal behaviour every year and provides qualifications to staff (who begin as volunteers to the project) as a measure of quality assurance. The matter of serious violence is well documented and as this issue has spilled beyond the capital so has the work, and SOS is starting to gain a foothold in other areas following the issues of county lines and Child Sexual Exploitation out of London into surrounding towns.

“We are ex-offender led and the caseworkers have lived experience of the situation their young clients are in.  We know exactly how hard it is to turn your life around when all you know is life on the road.  But the good news is there is a life beyond it – we are all living proof of this.”

What is the solution?

Junior Smart is very clear that the answer isn’t as straightforward as people may wish it to be.

“The young people need consistency and persistence; a single trusted point of contact to help them and to answer the questions to very serious choices. It is never going to be as simple as don’t carry a knife or don’t associate with those friends; the reality is if they don’t carry the knife they may have to run away or back down and that action might be recorded and circulated on a world-wide scale. If they choose not to be with their friends they may end up being on their own and hated where they live.”

How does the SOS Project help?

“Unlike many other services, we are not time-bound – we realise everyone’s situation is different and it might take some people a couple of years to get their lives stabilised. Gangs cynically target young people who are very vulnerable and they often slip under the radar of the authorities.”

“There are some factors beyond our control which are driving the rise in serious violence we are seeing in London. These include cuts to state services, lack of social mobility, the way the education system readily excludes young people with challenging behaviour and the growth of county lines. But SOS believes no-one is beyond help and nothing stops a bullet like a job. So, we will always be here to fight the corner for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable young people whose lives are shrouded in fear.”

And so, one final conclusive remark that I wish to make, and one that was mentioned at the debate I attended: it is the responsibility of society as a whole to tackle this epidemic, for everyone, no matter who they are, to ‘do their bit’ and work together in a holistic manner to help these young people.

Contact the St Giles Trust SOS Project on: 020 7708 8000

BBC News, 3rd April 2018 – Founder of the SOS Project Junior Smart appears on BBC News on 3 April 2018 discussing how we can tackle weapons crime and prevent more needless tragic deaths.


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