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Youth justice

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Mark Easton | 18:11 UK time, Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Strip away all the politics and today's Youth Crime Action Plan seems to be an interesting and provocative academic argument on why some kids go bad.

Group of youthsThe report (pdf link) starts by inviting readers to recognise that the number of serious offences
committed by young people is "actually very small" and that "only a minority of young people are actively engaged in serious crime".

The authors conclude that around 5% of youths commit half of all juvenile crime.

"The vast majority of young people make a positive contribution to society. Their
success should be recognised and praised," it says. (See yesterday's blog.)

But the government goes further with Ministers claiming in their introduction that when it comes to future troublemakers "we know how to identify these young people early on".

They produce a fascinating chart to explain what they mean.

Graph showing offenders risks

[UPDATE 17 July, 12:12 BST:
There's a mistake in this graph for the correct version please see this post.]

It shows how a young person's temperament or 'bad attitude' has little effect on whether they grow up broadly law-abiding or head down the road of crime.
But suffering maltreatment as a child increases the chance three fold.
Having a mother with low IQ doubles the risk.
Poverty significantly increases it too.

And, perhaps most intriguingly, a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) increases the chances more than six fold. It seems notable that of those diagnosed with the disorder, close to 40% become high-rate offenders.

Now, there may be a circular argument going on here. Those youngsters whose behaviour is worst are diagnosed with ADHD so causation is effectively reversed. But groups campaigning around this issue argue that it is a neurobiological condition which can lead sufferers to criminal behaviour.

Another chart in today's plan shows something less startling - that hanging around with the wrong crowd makes it more likely a youngster will commit crime. But it does remind us that peer pressure is a powerful force.

Graph showing offenders behaviour

The reports says that "even young people who view crime as wrong are more likely to offend as part of a delinquent peer group than on their own. This is not an isolated problem, with almost 12% of 14 and 15-year-olds belonging to one of these groups".

Just one youngster in 30 will carry a knife at any time in a year. But among kids whose mates get into trouble, one in eight will have packed a blade.

This plan is really about identifying and intervening early, a strategy that must make sense. However, there are no quick fixes in changing behaviour and the results of such initiatives will probably not be truly recognised for a generation.

The plan also talks about victimhood and quotes a startling statistic. Among adults about 14% will be the victim of a personal crime in any year. But for children aged 10 to 15, a third will be victims.

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