Out of control? Youth crime, class and capitalism

Issue: 159

Jo Cardwell, Claire Dissington and Brian Richardson

“What’s the danger in turning a blind eye? Your son might die”.1 That was the chilling headline of the “Saturday Interview” with Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick in The Times on 31 March this year. Elsewhere in the article, Dick observed that “it is really shocking that you are 10 times more likely to be killed if you are a young black man than if you are not”.2

In the preceding fortnight ten people had been stabbed to death in the capital. In the following week a series of attacks brought that horrific reality home to the families and friends of a number of other young Londoners. These murders catapulted the issue of violent crime into the headlines across the media. By early April this year, more than 50 such deaths had occurred in the capital. It was calculated that if this rate were to continue, there would be 180 in London by the year’s end, the highest number since 2005. There can be few things more heartbreaking than the loss of a loved one in such tragic circumstances. There are those who draw a distinction between those such as 17 year old Tanesha Melbourne, one of those who died over the Easter period who, we were told, was an innocent victim who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, with those whose social media posts suggest that they were heavily involved in violent and feuding gangs. But we should treat all these deaths as tragedies. Our hearts should go out to the families and friends of all the people who have been slain.

In the immediate aftermath of these events, politicians and pundits lined up to criticise not just the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) but also the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and the government for an apparent failure to take the issue seriously. David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, where a number of the attacks had taken place, was particularly vocal, denouncing the fact that none of these leaders had spoken to him or visited his constituency.

Even before the Easter events, there had been an increasing sense of fear and frustration within local communities. Three demonstrations organised by churches and community groups had already taken place in the London Borough of Hackney in 2018. In Central London bereaved parents and hundreds of predominantly young people marched to the town hall behind a banner proclaiming “Camden Against Violence”. Their main demand was for an increase in youth services. One youngster Olivia Okoro told the Camden New Journal: “When we were in primary school there were so many youth clubs we could go to and I felt like more of a community. As I’ve grown up it becomes more distant. I blame the cutbacks and think the government should help”.3

Many others have since waded in and one of the most common demands has been for more visible and robust policing. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was among them, suggesting at the launch of his party’s local election campaign that: “You simply cannot maintain community cohesion when you slash funding for the police and cut the number of officers on our streets by 21,000”.4

By the end of that grim week during Easter, Khan, the MPS and the Home Office had all regrouped and responded. Khan held a summit meeting with families and “community leaders”, launched a new campaign and tweeted out to “every young Londoner” with the hashtag #LondonNeedsYouAlive. Dick restated her commitment to stop and search and announced the establishment of a taskforce with an additional 300 beat officers.

The following Monday, the then Home Secretary Amber Rudd held a meeting attended by Dick and Khan among others, and published a Serious Violence Strategy. This 112-page document had clearly been some months in the planning and is intended to address what Rudd characterised as “the deadly cycle of violence that devastates the lives of individuals, families and communities”. Not surprisingly she declared that those involved “must feel the full force of the law” but she also conceded thatwe cannot arrest our way out of this issue and…tackling serious violence requires a multiple strand approach involving police, local authorities, health and education partners to name but a few”.5 To this end, the strategy is a detailed analysis of the causes of the phenomenon, but it also commits £400 million to the establishment of an Early Intervention Fund to tackle these issues.

Levels of crime

Our sympathies with the victims notwithstanding, it is necessary to have a sense of perspective about levels of crime. Several stories that followed the Easter events seemed to suggest that London is turning into a war zone with a soaring level of crime and a murder rate that is set to outstrip that of New York.6 This assertion was something that Donald Trump picked up on in a ludicrous and characteristically opportunist attempt to defend gun laws in the United States. The truth about this comparision between the cities is rather more complex.

By chance, April also saw the release of the Office For National Statistics (ONS) Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) for the year ending December 2017. It reports that there were 10.6 million offences against the household population in the preceding year. While this may seem high, a “Statistician’s Comment” observes that: “Today’s figures show that for most types of offences, the picture of crime has been fairly stable with levels much lower than the peak seen in the mid-1990s. Eight in ten adults had not experienced any of the crimes asked about in our survey in the last year”.7

The next ONS statistical bulletin will be produced shortly after this journal has gone to press but is highly likely to report a further increase in all metropolitan areas and particularly in London. It may even show that there have been more murders here than in New York in 2018. But that does not necessarily prove that London is now a more dangerous city. Comparisons with New York are valid as it is the US city closest to London in terms of size and composition. The BBC’s Home Affairs correspondent Dominic Casciani carried out a “fact check” which noted that in both February and March, there were more homicides in London; 15 and 22 compared to 11 and 21 in New York. He pointed out, however, that it is dangerous to rely on what might simply prove to be a temporary blip. At the time of writing he noted that, with January included, there had been more murders in New York in 2018. And in 2017, the homicide rate per 100,000 ­population was 1.2 in London and 3.4 in New York.8

In short, the overwhelming majority of us can go about our daily business safe in the knowledge that we will not be a victim of crime. This simple fact poses a problem for the proponents of robust policing because this levelling off of crime levels has coincided with the significant drop in police numbers that Jeremy Corbyn referred to. It highlights the fact that the amount of crime in society has little to do with the number of police on the beat. It is a combination of social and economic factors that drive people to engage in criminal or anti-social behaviour, not a calculated consideration as to whether one might get apprehended. That is why the widespread demand for more police, including from parents and members of affected communities, is, at best, misguided.

The primary function of the police has never been to “solve crime” but rather to reinforce the social order. It was for this reason, that in 1829, a time of growing unrest and—arguably most importantly—growing working class cohesion, that Britain’s first police force, the Metropolitan Police, was set up. The key section of the act that established it empowered a constable to apprehend:

All loose, idle and disorderly persons whom he shall find disturbing the public peace or whom he shall have just cause to suspect of any evil designs and all persons whom he shall find between sunset and the hour of eight in the forenoon lying in any highway, yard or other place, or loitering therein and not giving a satisfactory account of themselves.9

As Sir John Woodcock, then chief inspector of constabulary, admitted in 1992, in words approvingly quoted by Sir William Macpherson’s inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, “despite all the later mythology of Dixon, the police never really were the police of the whole people, but a mechanism set up to protect the affluent from what the Victorians described as the dangerous classes”.10

Theresa May’s predecessor and heroine Margaret Thatcher was acutely aware of this primary purpose. This is why she was so careful to support and fund the police at a time when she was determined to take on and destroy “the enemy within” in the shape of the trade union movement. It is a measure of how deep the current crisis is that May has been forced not simply to criticise the inefficiency of the police but has imposed swingeing cuts. The MPS has been forced not only to reduce its numbers, but also to sell its headquarters in Westminster and move to a smaller Scotland Yard.

It is not simply that more police will not put an end to violent crime. The deployment of tactics such as stop and search often stoke wider tensions. Again, in their more sober and sensible moments, our rulers realise this. We will return to this point, but briefly, both Dick and May are well aware of the discriminatory nature and inflammatory impact of stops and searches.

Violent crime

Within its overall assessment of the level of crime, the ONS found that 1,245,000 violent offences were reported in 2017. Once again, to give this some context, violent crime “covers a wide range of offences including minor assaults (such as pushing and shoving), harassment and psychological abuse (that result in no physical harm) through to wounding and death”.11

Such violence is undoubtedly traumatic for those who experience it, particularly for those who are repeat victims at the hands of abusive partners or other family members, but this is in an adult population of 53 million in England and Wales. Moreover, the report suggests that there has been “no change in overall violent offences estimated by the CSEW”.12 An interesting point to note is that apparently, 57 percent of violent crime victims do not report their experiences to the police. Arguably one of the reasons for this is because many complainants have so little confidence in the police force’s commitment to solving crime.

Contrary to the general trends, there has, however, been a rise in knife and gun crime. There were 39,598 offences involving a knife or sharp instrument in the year ending December 2017, up from 32,468 the previous year, and this is part of an increasing trend since 2014.13 In addition, there was an 11 percent increase in offences involving guns, from 5,945 to 6,604.

Some of the increase is due to improved recording by the police. The spike may not be quite so sharp therefore, but there can be little doubt that there has been an increase and that this is something that has occurred across the country. Out of 44 police forces, 37 recorded an increase, and this evidence is supported by NHS hospitals in England which reported a growth in admissions for assaults with a sharp object. The frequency with which trauma teams at hospitals such as King’s College Hospital in South London have had to deal with victims suffering these injuries has led to the development of skills and expertise which has ensured that the death toll is not even higher.

Placing the rise in violent crimes and deaths in context should not be taken as an excuse to do nothing. Lammy was right to respond with anger at the apparent indifference that he has observed. He has done much in recent years to expose the institutional racism that black communities experience in housing, education, and the criminal justice and immigration systems and the consequences that flow from it. The fear of those who carry and wield weapons is real, as is the pain and suffering of those left behind. It is necessary therefore to consider in detail the underlying causes of the phenomenon.

The Times characterised Dick’s interview as a “tour d’horizon of the myriad reasons for the resurgent chaos”.14 Her headline comment suggests that more must be done by families to discipline young people. Elsewhere she spoke about school exclusions, absent parents and segregation—a point highlighted in an editorial with a barbed comment about “the reluctance of some immigrant groups to even attempt integration”. Dick also sent a shot across the bows of the many millions of drug users in Britain by declaring: “Frankly I would also be asking the casual recreational drug user to stop and think of the misery that lies behind the drugs you are purchasing”.15

Other issues raised include the importation of violent habits from abroad, particularly by young men from war-torn countries such as Eritrea and Somalia and the supposedly malign influence of social media. Indeed, the same issue of the Sunday Times that compared London with New York included an article entitled “‘Demonic’ Music Linked to Rise in Youth Murders”.16 It referred specifically to “Drill” videos, one of which formed part of the evidence that helped convict rapper Reial Phillips, aka “Lynch” of murder in October 2016.

Shortly before her Times interview, Dick had visited Glasgow to learn how the city has tackled knife crime. It has been widely reported that what was considered an “epidemic” in Scotland’s second city in the early 2000s has been halved by the adoption of a public health approach. The Scottish solution is also noted in the Serious Violence Strategy. Let us now focus on a number of these issues as well as considering some wider concerns about the predicament of young people and the justice system.


It follows from the statistics we have noted that the overwhelming majority of people are neither the victims nor perpetrators of violent crimes. Moreover, it is estimated that 43 percent of violent crimes recorded were carried out by strangers and that 20 percent were cases of domestic violence. Some 37 percent were committed by “acquaintances”. The real concern here though among police forces, politicians and pundits is with the activity of so-called “gangs” who, it is alleged, are responsible for a hugely disproportionate number of offences. Once again, we must consider these claims with a huge amount of scepticism.

Governments have got themselves into trouble before by overestimating the extent of gang activity. The then prime minister David Cameron was quick to assert that gangs were at the centre of the riots that erupted in August 2011. Having been forced to cut short his summer holiday and return to work, he delivered a belligerent “fightback” speech in which he declared an “all out war on gangs and gang culture”.17 Within weeks, his home secretary Theresa May admitted in rather more muted tones that gang involvement “was not as high as people first thought”.18

Nevertheless, since then there has been an obsession with gangs. Hence, the MPS’s Gangs Matrix was established in the wake of that uprising. Given such concerns one might expect there to be a precise and forensic characterisation of gangs and yet there is not even a specific and consistent definition of a gang. The Gangs Matrix is particularly controversial. Individuals are supposedly included on the basis that they are engaged on an organised basis “in violence, criminal offending and gang membership”.

The Matrix has come in for serious criticism from, among others, Amnesty International and the police monitoring group StopWatch. A Freedom of Information request in 2016 revealed that there were 3,626 individuals on the database, 87 percent of whom were of black, Asian or minority ethnic origin and 78 percent of whom were “black men”.19 It was in these circumstances and for these reasons that it was characterised by Professor Lee Bridges as an example of “institutional racism in action”.20 In April 2018, Amnesty published a report entitled Trapped in the Matrix: Secrecy, Stigma, and Bias in the Met’s Gangs Database. The report reveals that the percentage of black people remains the same but in addition, 80 percent are aged between 12 and 24, 35 percent have never committed any serious offence and 74 percent have been victims of violence themselves.21

Loose terminology notwithstanding, it is undoubtedly the case that a disproportionate number of black youths, males in particular, are seemingly caught up in what are purported to be gangs and in the criminal justice system more generally. It is important therefore to consider why that is the case.

Stop and search

Professor Bridges’s assertion about institutional racism points to arguably a key factor in the relationship between race and crime for reasons much broader than simply targeting by the police. Young black people are disproportionately likely to be living in poverty and excluded from or underachieving in school. Those who find themselves out on the streets are therefore prey to the tender mercies of the police and it is in these circumstances that stop and search comes into play.

Stop and search is a highly controversial issue. Its use was the main bone of contention raised by black communities at the 1997-9 Stephen Lawrence Inquiry and the primary reason why Macpherson was forced to recognise the existence of institutional racism within the police service. The solemn promise that was made in response to that inquiry was that its use would become less indiscriminate and more intelligence led.

But with the onset of Tony Blair’s “war on terror”, declared with the chilling phrase “The rules of the game have now changed”, this was a promise that was soon broken. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, the police were encouraged to abandon any post-Macpherson diffidence they had developed. The need to combat terror became the pretext for a more general return to business as usual and the number of stops and searches soared above 1 million by 2010.22

This is despite the fact that it is widely recognised that stop and search detects very little crime but has an enormous capacity to stir up resentment among those targeted. The most recent report suggests that just 17 percent of incidents of stop and search led to an arrest. When one considers that not all arrests lead to a successful prosecution, one can see how ineffective it is. May knows this. She was home secretary for over six years, the longest-serving for 60 years. It was on her watch that Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary published data that showed that there was no legal basis for 27 percent of the recorded stops it examined. Having received the report, May was forced to declare that: “Nobody wins when stop and search is misapplied. It is a waste of police time. It is unfair, especially to young black men. It is bad for public confidence in the police”.23

Once again, the promise was made that stops and searches would become more targeted and indeed, following a series of reforms introduced by May, the number carried out has apparently fallen by 21 percent in the past year, to 304,000 under the most commonly used police power.24 Nevertheless, there is still a huge disproportionality. The most recent data suggests that the decrease for white people was 38 percent, while for those classified as black it was only 8 percent. For those classified as Asian it was 16 percent, 19 percent for those of “mixed ethnicity” and 25 percent for “Others”. Black people are still six times more likely to be stopped than white people, while all “ethnic minority” people are three times more likely.25


At least half of all stops are because the police are searching for prohibited drugs, and much of the focus on gangs is due to their alleged involvement in their supply.26 Trafficking drugs is big business. In the round of interviews he undertook over Easter, Lammy suggested that it is worth £11 billion. This is almost certainly incorrect. The BBC’s fact check suggests that the figure is closer to £5.3 billion, still large therefore.27

Cocaine, particularly in the modified form known as crack, is one of the most commonly consumed Class A drugs in the UK. The main source is Colombia and historically, coca cultivation was used by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to fund their fight against the government. The peace process that concluded in August 2016 was supposed to help bring this to an end but has clearly failed to stop the trade in drugs—cultivation is said to have “surged” since 2013. According to the NCA the “vast majority” of the 18-23 tonnes of heroin imported into the UK annually is from Afghanistan, a country whose troubled history has been noted in this journal before. It is also the source of some of the 270 tonnes of cannabis, the most commonly consumed drug, though there is some suggestion that an increasing amount is cultivated domestically.28

Where there is supply, efforts must be made to recoup the initial outlay. An estimated 25-50 tonnes of cocaine is imported annually and crack cocaine purity increased from 36 percent to 71 percent in 2016. Once it has been imported, cut and mixed it must get out onto the streets. Of course, the problem for those involved is that all of this is illegal. Instead of being able to rely on official regulators and the courts to resolve their disputes, drug dealers must therefore use their own means to settle affairs.

One of the primary concerns which is said to be fuelling the increase in ­violent crime is the phenomenon of so called “county line” drug dealing. It flows from the fact that suppliers need to branch out into new markets in order to ensure the continued flow of profits. County lines involve the establishment of supply routes from large urban areas into more remote areas. The “line” includes untraceable mobile phones that already have a directory of customers within the area who require supply, and quite often homes from which dealers operate. The police’s concern about drug dealing is focused on this phenomenon far more than on the supply to recreational middle class users which, in any event, is unlikely to come from the black youth who are the subject of the most intense and intrusive policing. The suggestion is that the fierce competition between different gangs is what fuels violent crime.

Moving drugs out from cities and ports into more remote areas is not new. However, the increase of the trade and the use of children and young people to facilitate it has brought a new level of awareness of this practice. The NCA reports that 65 percent of police forces surveyed identify children being involved in county lines activity more than any other vulnerable group.29 In fact, one of the processes used by local authority children’s departments to identify children who may be involved in county lines is to examine those who are regularly reported as missing persons.

One of the distinct advantages to criminal gangs of using children is that they are less likely to be arrested and, if they are, they are less likely to receive lengthy sentences. Interestingly, Neil Woods, a former undercover drugs officer, details how forces target “low hanging fruit”, the low-level street dealers and addicts. This in turn prompts the gangs themselves to increase the levels of violence used internally to frighten their dealers from informing. Woods’s opinion is that police activity has therefore increased the level of street violence, while being totally ineffective at preventing drug sales and use.30

The children and young people who are targeted and used by drugs gangs are abused in all manner of ways; the practice of “plugging” drugs, inserting them into the body for concealment is both dangerous and abusive. The use of ­physical and sexual violence to threaten children and young people, instructing them to carry weapons while carrying a supply, and the practice of robbing them once they have been given an amount of drugs to ensure their indebtedness to a gang, is commonplace.

In this situation one has to ask how children and young people have become more involved in this practice. A number of possible answers are available. First, it is important to note that gangs themselves understand vulnerability. The children and young people who are targeted are likely to have been excluded from school and to have little access to money. Further, it is apparent that young people in care are also targeted. They are more likely to be deemed as “NEET”, not in education, training or employment. The over-representation of this group in the criminal justice system is a damning indictment of the government as a “corporate parent”.

Many of these children are from homes where a lone parent is struggling to cope. Politicians and pundits are quick to point the finger of blame at this supposed parental fecklessness and black fathers are a particular bogeyman. Many, including Lammy, argue that black men are not doing enough to nurture or act as positive role models for their sons. It is undoubtedly the case that a dispropotionate number of black children are raised predominantly by their mothers. It is also true that single parent families frequently face significant extra challenges. As we have argued throughout this article, however, most manage to cope, often admirably in spite of these difficultes. It is only in a minority of cases that fathers are completely absent and here, of course, it may well be because they themselves were excluded and criminalised when they were growing up.

Instead of criticising others, the government would do well to look at its own practices. Quite simply, it is failing the vast majority of children in care. In any event, can it really be argued that parenting has suddenly deteriorated in the UK? When one understands the increasing inequality and poverty of families, the long hours that parents have to work in order to provide for their children, and the huge reduction of services due to austerity, to lay such criticism at the door of parents is a gross misrepresentation.

However, it is hardly surprising that an increasing number of parents are unable to cope. The numbers of children in residential or foster care is now higher than at any time since 1985.31 The numbers sent to children’s homes miles from where they live have soared.32 Department for Education figures show a 64 percent rise in children sent away between 2012 and 2017.

The levels of poverty and unemployment among young people is also instructive. Unison the union reports that in the period February-April 2016, 27.7 percent of 16-17 year olds and 11.9 percent of 18-24 year olds were unemployed, compared with 4.7 percent of 25-34 year olds, 3.2 percent of 35-49 year olds, and 3.6 percent of 50-64 year olds.33 The most recent statistics show that in the year to March 2018, the percentage of young people not in education, employment or training is 11.2. In short, there has been little change since Unison’s study.

Unemployment is particularly acute for young black people. Between December 2015 and February 2016, the unemployment rate among black 16-24 year olds was 27.5 percent, more than double the rate for young white people.If we are to look at a way to engage young people, especially those most disaffected and marginalised in our society, youth services hold a key, but they have been decimated over the years of austerity. Unison, which represents many local government employed youth workers reports that between 2012 and 2016, 3,652 youth work jobs have been lost and 603 youth centres closed. The union concludes from its surveys that “in the year 2016/17 and beyond, there is likely to be at least £26 million more cuts in youth service spending, the loss of around 800 more jobs, more than 30 youth centres closed, and 45,000 more youth service places for young people removed. This will only be the tip of the iceberg”.34

In this context, who are we expecting to engage these young people? It certainly won’t be the police. Far from protecting young people, the police make them feel unsafe. Very often, vulnerable young people are being criminalised rather than protected. In fact, all anecdotal and statistical evidence from young people shows that they carry knives out of a feeling that they need to protect themselves. It is a misguided notion, but to undermine such perceptions, a serious youth work strategy needs to be implemented, one that is able to engage with young people on the streets and in their local communities. In addition their economic prospects need to be raised. The fact that we have legalised discrimination against young people in the form of a national minimum wage which allows them to be paid less is indicative of how undervalued they are in our society. In such circumstances, the fact that some young people seek to make money by selling drugs should come as no surprise.

What are we doing to our children?

The UK is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention came into force in January 1992 and is a beautifully crafted document that sets out how children should be treated. Few would disagree that they should have the right to a life where they survive, develop, thrive and reach their full potential. They should also have the right to decent accommodation, proper food and family life and to be raised by their parents. They should have the right to a good education and learning but also the right to fun and play and, perhaps most importantly, the right to be protected and listened to. But the fine rhetoric of the Convention is not matched by the reality of young people’s lives. The simple fact that there are children that carry weapons because they feel so scared and isolated shows that society is failing to protect them.

It is not difficult to see why some young people feel a sense of community and safety in gangs or groups of their peers rather than with their families or at school. They have been thrown on the rubbish heap, their potential ignored and destroyed. As we have argued throughout this article, this is a consequence of years of austerity and social deprivation. From their earliest years onwards these cuts affect the welfare of children and their families, from the closure of Sure Start centres through to the fees young people now have to pay if they want to go to university.

Michael Turner QC, a criminal barrister of 37 years experience who regularly represents young people at the Old Bailey, writing in no less a publication than the Daily Express, noted that an estimated 7,000 school children were permanently excluded from mainstream education last year. Disproportionately represented in this group were black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) boys. A black Caribbean boy on free school meals and with special needs is 168 times more likely to be excluded than a white British girl without special needs. Turner goes on to suggest that: “The path from exclusion to offending is well-trodden. I cannot remember a case where my defendant has not been excluded from mainstream education”.35

It is little wonder that all of these stresses mean young people today are increasingly diagnosed with mental health and conduct and behaviour disorders, ADHD, learning disabilities and difficulties. It is little wonder that they struggle to control their emotions. This makes them more likely to suffer mental distress and become more susceptible to anxiety or depression. The alienation of capitalist society has an astonishingly detrimental effect on our mental health. In his new book Politics of the Mind, Iain Ferguson cites a World Health Organisation report that indicates that depression now affects 350 million people worldwide and that by 2020 it will be the leading cause of disability in the world.36 Capitalism triggers incredibly high levels of mental distress across all classes, but disproportionately affects those who are poor. Hence, a 2017 Mental Health Foundation report revealed that:

The most significant demographic differences relate to household income and economic activity. Nearly three-quarters of people (73 percent) living in the lowest household income bracket (less than £1,200 per month) report that they have experienced a mental health problem in their lifetime compared to 59 percent in the highest (over £3,701 per month).37

And, after these experiences take a very real and understandable toll on the lives of children, those that fall through an increasingly threadbare safety net face the nightmare that is called “the criminal justice system”. It is a system not fit for adults, let alone young people; a system also devastated by cuts. But what is far worse is that once they are in the system, these children and their families, people who have already been failed by the state, feel the full force of its might railed against them.

When a young person is suspected of committing a crime they are handcuffed, arrested and taken to a police station. They are initially denied access to their parents or carers. They are subsequently fingerprinted and photographed with a DNA sample taken. Although they will be asked if they want a solicitor, there is no safeguarding in place to ensure they have legal representation. Following interview the child is often put back into the cell to wait for a decision. They can remain at the police station for up to 24 hours, longer if the police seek authority to detain them further. They are left to languish in loud, violent, dirty adult environments, isolated and alone.

The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is just 10, a far lower age than many other European countries. This means that at 10 years old a child can be arrested, held responsible for their actions and locked up. The criminalisation of children at such a young age was a direct response to the tragic killing of two year old Jamie Bulger in 1993, by two 10 year old boys. Following a bellicose campaign by The Sun newspaper, the then home secretary Michael Howard specified a 15-year period of imprisonment for both boys rather than the 8 years recommended by the trial judge. Prime minister John Major declared that: “society needs to condemn a little more, and understand a little less”. These sentences were later ruled unlawful and described by Lord Donaldson as “institutionalised vengeance”.

What became apparent to those representing the boys was that they had been tried in a system aimed at adults, and had no effective participation in what was happening to them in the court. It should not be underestimated what a frightening and alienating place a court room is for adults, let alone children. They may be allowed to sit next to their lawyers but this is at the discretion of the judge or magistrates. They may instead be placed in a locked dock flanked by security guards. The sight of the Bulger defendants, traumatised and barely able to see over the dock persuaded the best lawyers, social workers and psychologists to campaign to make the system easier for children. The reality is that those in the system are the most vulnerable, those most in need of help and support not incarceration.

Children living in children’s homes are at least 15 times more likely to be criminalised than others of the same age. The Howard League for Penal Reform reports that 70 percent of children in children’s homes who were criminalised in the year to March 2016 had been taken into care because of acute family stress, dysfunction, parental illness or disability. An additional 14 percent were taken into care primarily because of abuse or neglect. Some 71 percent of these children were found to have emotional and behavioural concerns. They face frequent moves, often change social workers and have no stability.

The police and courts should treat young people differently from adults. Arguably, however, at the moment they are treated more harshly and more moralistically, as bad, disobedient and disrespectful of their elders. But what is the nature of the crimes they commit? They are mainly acquisitive, stealing phones, bikes or mopeds and shoplifting, public order offences and some low-level drug use. Youth offending is typically prolific but short-lived. Teenage years are a time of significant change both emotionally and neurologically. Moreover, one does not automatically wake up a fully formed, responsible adult on the morning of one’s 18th birthday. The Rowntree Trust and Howard League have produced interesting research on brain development between the ages of 18 and 24.38 Consequently, they are campaigning to have young people treated as youths until they are 24. Meanwhile a House of Commons Justice Committee report in 2016 suggested:

Dealing effectively with young adults while the brain is still developing is crucial for them in making successful transitions to a crime-free adulthood. They typically commit a high volume of crimes and have high rates of re-offending and breach, yet they are the most likely age group to stop offending as they “grow out of crime”. Flawed interventions that do not recognise young adults’ maturity can slow desistance and extend the period of involvement in the system.39

Key findings show that although guidance to courts from the Sentencing Council includes age and/or lack of maturity this has not made a significant difference as to whether or not maturity is considered.

It has been argued that higher sentences are part of the answer. Yet sentencing guidelines already provide tough sentences for violent crimes. Indeed, there are new and increased tariffs for knife crime. Clearly they are having little deterrent effect. The proposed prohibition on knives bought on the internet, so-called “zombie knives”, is likely to be equally ineffective. Turner argued: “In all the cases I have done involving knife violence I have only once come across a knife bought off the internet…being used as a fatal weapon. In all the other cases the weapon of choice was a readily available kitchen knife very often taken from their home”.40

There is also an increase in the granting of Criminal Behaviour Orders, targeted at keeping children out of certain areas, stopping them associating with their friends or owning bicycles. Intensive Youth Rehabilitation Orders, where young people must attend appointments, keep to curfews and wear electronic tags and attend offending management meetings such as working on victim awareness or payback in the community, are often viewed as the alternative to custody. But in many instances young people end up serving a custodial sentence simply because they breach the orders by missing the endless appointments, meeting with their friends or staying out late.

One of the options that judges in adult courts have, that of the suspended sentence, where the offender is given a custodial sentence but not sent to prison immediately—and not at all if they successfully complete a rehabilitation programme and do not re-offend—is not available to those aged under 18.


Solicitors travelling by taxi to Feltham Young Offender Institution (YOI) are habitually treated to tales of boys, all in their own rooms, with Sky TV on tap, steak for dinner, living the life. The reality is rather different. They certainly don’t get to eat steak and they do not get to take their meals together. Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League indicated in May 2018: “There have been some improvements in Feltham and there had to be, because the prison was so dire at its last inspection that the inspectors declared it unsafe for boys and unsafe for staff”.41

One might expect that if young people are locked up they would at least be given education and training, especially given that what they have been sentenced to is termed a “Detention and Training Order” (DTO). In fact, detainees do not get rehabilitative work or any kind of training. A DTO is about containment (many boys are still locked in their cells for 23 hours a day) and punishment—simply removing them from the streets, their families and their communities. Many leave with no home to go to. All of this is at the cost of tens of thousands of pounds per offender.

Representing young people, who do not trust adults or the system, is ­challenging work. It requires lawyers who are prepared to fight to keep them out of police cells and prisons and demand that they are treated in accordance with the rights to which parliament is rhetorically committed. Continuing cuts to legal aid mean the recruitment and retention of lawyers is hard. Many are simply unable to live on the wages it pays and there are far more lucrative areas of practice.

As with stop and search, institutional racism is a key determinant of what happens once young people have been caught in the criminal justice system. Having been stopped, BAME individuals are more likely to be arrested. There is no great disparity in Crown Prosecution Service charging decisions or conviction rates, but if you are convicted you are more likely to be imprisoned. Indeed, for drugs offences, rates of imprisonment are 240 times higher. Furthermore, if black people are imprisoned they are more likely to be sentenced to a longer term than white people.42 May admitted as much in her very first speech as prime minister when she acknowledged the “burning injustice [that]…if you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white”.43

Corporate hypocrisy

A telling footnote to the Easter events reveals much about the society we live in. On 5 April, sportswear giant Puma, in conjunction with JD Sports and creative agency Urban Nerds, threw a “House of Hustle” party in Soho, London. According to a report in the online magazine Dazed Digital invitees were:

sent Puma shoeboxes full of fake £50 notes and sketchy-looking business cards which instructed them to “turn on the trap line” in other words turn on the “burner” phone they’d been sent, which came with a preloaded message reading “Yo G what u saying today? Pass tru the House of Hustle”… The trap house itself was covered in graffiti, with blacked out windows and dirty mattresses strewn on the floor, while drill acts including Loski performed and tattooists and barbers offered guests fresh ink, trims and grills.44

Social worker Amber Gilbert Coutts penned an open letter in response, highlighting the fact that there were six stabbings in 90 minutes in London that very night. It is an indication of just how cynical capitalism is that companies such as Puma are happy to glamourise such alienated activity if it means they can make money.

Nor is this something new. In her brilliant breakthrough book No Logo, Canadian writer Naomi Klein described the phenomenon of “Bro-ing” deployed by Puma’s rival sportswear company Nike. Here, marketing executives, encouraged to treat urban black youth as society’s trendsetters, would swoop in on inner city neighbourhoods, armed with the latest trainers and a cheery greeting: “Hey Bro, check out the shoes”. One such employee proudly boasted: “We go into the playground, and we dump the shoes out. It’s unbelievable. The kids go nuts. That’s when you realise the importance of Nike. Having kids tell you Nike is the number one thing in their life—number two is their girlfriend”.45

Similarly, on these shores, we have seen a situation whereby shopping centres, supposedly fearful of marauding gangs and youth violence, have prohibited the wearing of hooded tops and groups of three or more young men congregating on their premises. Yet these same outlets are more than happy to sell the very same hooded tops at exorbitant prices to the young people that they demonise and exclude.

We live in a world where people are judged by what they look like, what they wear and what they possess. Moreover, and particularly in the metropolitan areas where the issues discussed here are most acute, class divisions are clear for all to see. Haringey, the borough in which Lammy’s constituency is situated, is one of the poorest in Britain, but the poverty is not universal. Tottenham, one of the most deprived districts, is cheek by jowl with Muswell Hill, a leafy affluent area. In Tottenham itself, the rebuilding of the local Premier League football club’s stadium is heralded as “the next chapter of London’s regeneration” plan which is supposed to bring prestige and prosperity to an impoverished area. Many residents are much more cynical about this and the council’s wider Haringey Development Vehicle redevelopment scheme. Instead of lifting those who already live there out of poverty, they regard it as yet another example of the social cleansing that has driven working class people out of the central areas of so many towns and cities.

More generally, all around them and in every locality, young people are bombarded with messages about the material possessions that will supposedly provide them with respect and status. Most of the time most people are able to resist the pressure to conform, adapt and get ahead, at least until they have saved enough to buy the latest trainers, smartphone or designer clothes. Very occasionally the dam of frustration breaks.

In a world of such rampant materialism, it is little wonder that some of those involved in the 2011 uprisings engaged in looting. By and large, however, they did not do so under the direction of gangs. We have already noted the humiliating climb-down May had to make in the characterisation of these events. It should also be remembered that they occurred in the aftermath of a parliamentary expenses scandal for which almost all the politicians implicated were excused. It highlights the hypocrisy that exists about what is regarded as crime and who is punished under capitalism. Instead of lecturing young people for stealing phones and televisions, the parliamentarians who used public funds to build duck ponds or “flip” their mortgages should stop to consider who it is that has an illegitimate sense of entitlement. More importantly, what motivated many of the young people to take to the streets in the first place was yet another death, that of Mark Duggan, at the hands of the police.

Five years after those events, a number of TV and radio programmes and feature articles were commissioned to consider them. A striking feature of those reports was the number of young people who expressed no regret about their involvement. Indeed, many people both at the time and years later regarded August 2011 as the best time of their lives. The reason is simple: for once, albeit briefly, the streets belonged to them and they felt they were hitting back at their oppressors.

It is an indictment of the society we live in that the horizons of so many people are so low. That 2011 cohort of young people were the first to experience the austerity imposed by the Coalition and subsequent Conservative governments. The Education Maintenance Allowance, a small grant that helped enable them to stay on in further education was removed in 2010 and there was a hike in tuition fees for those seeking to go to university.

These measures were imposed by the alumni of public schools who had been to the most exclusive universities when tuition fees were paid for by the state. Meanwhile, in those times, many of us from less affluent backgrounds received maintenance grants to pay for our living expenses and were able to claim a range of benefits during the holidays.

In 2018, the impact of continuing austerity is even more devastating for young people. A report commissioned by the Trades Union Congress in May 2018 suggested that one million more children are growing up in poverty in working households than in 2010.46

As should be clear from the analysis outlined in this article, it does not automatically follow that because people are poor, they will engage in crime—far from it. We do argue, however, that capitalism generates levels of oppression and exclusion that trigger the phenomena that we have discussed. It is little wonder that millions of people, including the middle class professionals that Dick admonished, take drugs in order to either escape from the anguish of the world around them or add a little excitement to their lives.

Some of those who choose to supply those drugs do so having made a conscious and arguably, rational decision. They perceive it to be more lucrative than flipping burgers, making speculative calls in a soulless call centre or working on a zero-hours contract in a warehouse. Some of these youngsters do not expect to live long anyway and therefore consider that they may as well enjoy the high life while they can. For a tiny minority, the “get rich quick” approach works. As we have noted, however, far too many others “die trying” and for very many more there is the precarity that comes with their lowly status in the drugs hierarchy.


When it comes to solving the problem of violent crime, there is a vast amount of expertise, developed over decades by dedicated professionals who know how to protect our young people. In Scotland, the number of young people convicted of handling an offensive weapon is at its second-lowest level since 1984. There has been an 81 percent reduction. It is argued that the reason for this is because practitioners adopted a youth work approach and regarded the problem as a public health issue. Those involved in carrying knives were seen as being at risk and therefore the emphasis was placed upon working with them to address these vulnerabilities. Given that fear of others is a central factor, one of the aims has been to prevent scaremongering about the prevalence of knives. Policymakers elsewhere could certainly learn from these experiences, but the Glasgow solution is not the universal cure. According to figures released in April 2018, school exclusions for offences involving weapons rose by 3.9 percent in 2016-17.

The problem is not that we are incapable of solving the problem of violent crime, but rather one of the choices that society makes. Politicians and pundits invariably blame the perpetrators themselves and their families. They are pathologised and criticised for making bad lifestyle choices. Hence the demand that parents take responsibility for disciplining their children or face punishment if they fail to do so. Communities that are systematically marginalised and treated with hostility are condemned for failing to integrate. Young people fortunate enough to be granted asylum having fled unimaginable horror and violence are expected to fit in with little counselling and support.

Meanwhile, the media lazily latch onto and lambast the latest craze in youth culture. Drill music is the most recent fad to be hauled into the dock. As with the sportswear companies, the attitude of those who condemn it is one of rank hypocrisy. Some of the material posted on social media by young people involved in gangs is undeniably inflammatory. The postcode wars that typically feature in these videos are dangerous and destructive. However, they are a symptom of the problem—the alienation and social exclusion these youngsters experience, not its cause.

We have been here before, time and time again. Indeed, whether here or abroad, whenever young black people in particular are unruly or refusing to conform, rap music is invariably cited as the causal factor. In the past, US presidents railed against the supposedly malign influence of Sister Souljah, 2 Live Crew or NWA. More recently grime music and MTV Base have been condemned for encouraging anti-social and violent behaviour among urban youth. The media weighed in behind these attacks, the same media and corporations that happily promote and profit from the most sexist and provocative albums, videos and computer games.

Of course, we must all take responsibility not just for our own actions but also the welfare of others. And indeed, most of us do most of the time. We do not live in a Hobbesian world where we are all perpetually at war with each other. Given the levels of oppression, inequality and state-sponsored aggression and international wars that exist, it is a wonder that there is not more violence. The fact that there is not is a measure of our ability to live peaceably together.

For the tiny minority that do become embroiled in drugs, gangs and violence, the descent is invariably steep, sharp and swift. It does not have to be like that if there is a real lasting commitment to support, prevention and rehabilitation, but there is not. Instead we have a tale of sound and fury or at best, fine sounding charters, and policy documents that signify little or nothing.

Casciani highlights a whole series of initiatives, from New Labour’s “Crime and Disorder Reduction Partnerships”, through to its 2009-10 “Tackling Knives Action Plan” to the Coalition government’s “Ending Gang and Youth Violence Strategy” (revised in 2016). On the night that he reported on Rudd’s pledges, the BBC’s Home Affairs editor Mark Easton pointed out that many of the initiatives promised in the previous strategies had already been cut.

In London, Khan produced his own 80-page “Knife Crime Strategy” in 2017. It is full of photographs of him walking the streets looking engaged or in earnest conversation with police officers. Moreover, it is backed by a £45 million “Young Londoners Fund”. His predecessor Boris Johnson had his own “Gangs and Serious Youth Violence” plan published in June 2014 and before that, London’s first mayor Ken Livingstone worked closely with the police around its Operation Trident initiative. These examples demonstrate that we have had tough talk and promise after promise from administration after administration, none of which have prevented us from arriving at the predicament that ­confronts us today.

The lives of young people are increasingly difficult and, as Guardian journalist Gary Younge’s Beyond the Blade initiative indicates, the reasons why a tiny minority get involved in violent crime are complex.47 That project seeks to remember and cherish young people and identify positive solutions. We should fight for more resources to support them. Similarly, it is testament to the work of Lammy and others that a number of police forces are currently considering deferring prosecutions for minor offences. They will rescue some lives but, ultimately the spiral of violence, criminal entrapment and death will only end when we live in a different society, one where young people do not feel as if it is “me against the world”, a world where they have real freedom, choice and control over their lives. That society would be one where there would not need to be a £5.7 billion trade in narcotics, partly because there would not be the hypocrisy that surrounds drugs under capitalism. Individuals will be free to take them if they wish and with considerably more confidence about their source and safety. However, we must also fight for a world where the alienation that drives so many people to seek the temporary high that drugs provide and which also triggers anti-social behaviour is a thing of the past.

Jo Cardwell is a youth and community worker with over ten years experience in the field of youth justice. She writes here in a personal capacity.

Claire Dissington was a national organiser for the Anti-Nazi League from 1992 to 2002. She then qualified as a criminal defence solicitor. She specialises in defending young people at court and the police station.

Brian Richardson is a barrister who lives and works in London. He is the author or editor of three previous books: Tell it Like it Is: How Our Schools Fail Black Children; Say it Loud: Marxism and the Fight Against Racism; and Bob Marley: Roots, Reggae and Revolution. He also edits the anti-racist magazine Unity.


1 Sylvester and Hamilton, 2018, pp36-37.

2 Sylvester and Hamilton, 2018, p36.

3 McLennan, 2018.

4 BBC News, 2018a.

5 Home Office, 2018a, p7.

6 For example Gilligan, 2018.

7 Office for National Statistics, 2018. The bulletin reports on data from two main sources, the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) and police recorded crime. An explanatory note sets out the important differences between the two sets of data and the reason why both are used.

8 Casciani, 2018.

9 Metropolitan Police Act 1829, go to www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Geo4/10/44/contents

10 Macpherson, 1999, p35.

11 Office for National Statistics, 2018, p26.

12 Office for National Statistics, 2018, p5. This report notes that “The CSEW provides the better measure of trends in overall violent crime, covering the more common but less harmful offences. Police recorded crime provides a better measure of the more harmful but less common violent offences that are not well measured by the survey because of their low volume. These offences are thought to be relatively well recorded by the police”.

13 Office for National Statistics, 2018, p31.

14 The Times, 2018, p29.

15 Sylvester and Hamilton, 2018.

16 Mararike, Harper and Gilligan, 2018, p11.

17 David Cameron “Fightback” speech in his Witney constituency, 15 August 2011, quoted in Richardson, 2013, p164.

18 Quoted in Richardson, 2013, p164.

19 Hopkins, 2018.

20 Bridges, 2015.

21 Amnesty International, 2018.

22 Richardson, 2013, p161.

23 Home Office, 2014.

24 Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, section 1. Go to www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1984/60/section/1

25 Home Office, 2018b.

26 Eastwood, Shiner and Bear, 2013.

27 BBC News, 2018b. Lammy appeared to be citing a National Crime Agency (NCA) assessment that indicated that the impact of drug trafficking costs the UK an estimated £10.7 billion. But this figure includes the cost of treating people within the NHS and pursuing users and suppliers through the criminal justice system.

29 National Crime Agency, 2017.

30 Aitkenhead, 2016.

31 Zayed and Harker, 2015, p4.

32 Coffey, 2018.

33 Unison, 2016.

34 Unison, 2016.

35 Turner, 2018.

36 World Health Organisation, 2016, quoted in Ferguson, 2017, p11. Go to www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs369/en/

37 Mental Health Foundation, 2017, quoted in Ferguson, 2017, p12.

38 Howard League for Penal Reform and Transition to Adulthood (T2A) Alliance, 2017.

39 House of Commons Justice Committee, 2016. Breach refers to breaching the conditions of the order imposed on them.

40 Turner, 2018.

41 Howard League, 2018.

42 Ministry of Justice, 2016; Lammy, 2017.

43 Prime Minister’s Office, 2016.

44 Davidson, 2018.

45 Klein, 2000, quoted in Richardson, 2013, p172.

46 Klair, 2018.

47 See Younge, 2017.


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