29 November 1996 - 01 December 1996

Preventing Youth Crime

Chair: The Honorable Janet Reno

One of Ditchley’s most notable conferences, distinguished by the leadership of the Attorney General of the United States and the active participation of The Princess Royal, began by noting that in all the countries represented offences by young people constituted a massive proportion - already often thirty per cent or more - of total crime, growing indeed in volume even where the total was falling. And within this proportion the incidence of serious crime (most markedly personal violence, but not only that - burglary too could be traumatic for victims) was gravely worrying.

Without attempting comprehensive diagnosis, we noted that the factors underlying this trend included the pressures of idleness and boredom; especially for young males, the frequent paucity of credible role models of success close at hand, and the lack of basic skills prospectively relevant to getting jobs in a changing and difficult labour market; less dependable parental structures; awareness, above all through television, of far more attractive life-styles apparently available to others; media images of violence, unsettling at least to those already unstable for one reason or another, violence within families, habituating younger members to that mode of behaviour, perhaps a less-automatic absorption than in the past, from the social environment, of understood values, duties and responsibilities towards other people. Teen-age pregnancies added complication in several respects. None of this, we knew, at all implied that today’s younger generation was somehow of lower inherent quality than its forerunners; but it pointed to a range of difficulty more awkward, particularly among those materially disadvantaged, than some past societies had been used to.

In the United States, we were reminded, the politically-intractable issue of ready availability of firearms posed extra problems - propensities towards immature and impulsive behaviour were contributing to an appalling surge in the incidence of murder by and among young people. The widespread gang phenomenon too set severe challenges; gang membership offered to alienated individuals a sense of belonging and of personal status which law-abiding society appeared to have denied them, and it often generated incentives to offending as a passport to prestige in the group.

Within a typical school-age population the task of crime prevention could be segmented in various ways. One such way would note that a large proportion of individuals would be of a disposition, or a family background, that made them no general problem; that a small proportion might be serious and persistent offenders constituting a hard core realistically requiring special and sometimes rigorous approaches (in Britain, around one per cent of children typically accounted for sixty percent of youth crime); and that a large intermediate segment comprised those whose behaviour might tilt either way. Though neither the boundary between these categories nor the identification of individuals within them was precise or fixed, there might be advantage in consciously directing preventive effort particularly toward the in-between group.

We noted also, along another dimension, the importance of helping at-risk young people from an early age. Precise age-limits were inevitably arbitrary; but especially in an era where most children were more widely aware of the world – more streetwise – than their predecessors of the same age would have been, fourteen was often too late for truly formative action. Measures at ten, or even earlier, would normally be a more cost-effective investment for the future.

We agreed that practical strategies for dealing with the problems needed to be built around measures empirically known to contribute valuably towards prevention. A great deal was already established by diverse experience, though we suspected that there remained considerable scope for more systematic sharing and dissemination of such knowledge. That said, implementation and leadership needed to be organised for staying-power (several of us were wary of “pump-priming” approaches); clearly focused; undertaken in doses large enough to make a genuine difference; and results-measured in relevant ways – for example not just in terms of re-offending rates. We knew of course that no measure could guarantee success in every instance, and there would always be risk of headline-catching failures; the goal should rather be to heighten the probable incidence – wherever possible, independently evaluated – of better outcomes. We knew also that, though some measures might deliver improvement quite rapidly, there was more often than not a mismatch in timing between resource commitment and results – a substantial problem in terms both of public-expenditure pressures and of public opinion looking for immediate and direct action to deal with the unacceptable, like assault upon the elderly.

Our discussion underlined the importance of comprehensive strategies for action. Both the origins and the forms of youth crime were diverse, and prevention was inevitably therefore a complex matter needing the integration of flexible and responsive contributions from many agencies. We acknowledged that integration of this kind was typically hard to achieve among bureaucratic responsibilities organised at national or comparable level and usually on a basis of “input” specialism, with matching lines of financial and professional accountability; such structures could even lead to action (such as over-ready recourse to school expulsions placing already-at-risk young people at large on the streets throughout the day) that yielded outcomes in perverse directions. Many of us were disposed to see the way forward out of these structural difficulties less in the re-shaping of organisations at national level than in the re-focusing of effort (crucially, including resource allocation) upon local communities, where action could be more sensitively directed to specific conditions, the nature of overall outcomes could be more concretely discerned, and the ownership of integrative programmes and responsibility for their success or failure more clearly fixed.

We had to acknowledge that effective community focus was often hardest to achieve in just those areas where the needs were greatest. Given that resources would remain limited whatever strategies were adopted, priorities had to be set and choices made; and there was a powerful case for concentrating upon localities where high crime rates (often drug-related) and social deprivation typically went together, sometimes in the wake of poorly-designed urban development and amid ethnic-minority preponderance. In such areas basic law and order was sometimes a prime yet difficult requirement; and though encouraging examples of success were sometimes to be found, community sense tended to be precarious and in-area leaders hard to find as abler or more successful individuals were naturally motivated to move out. Special inter-agency effort, resolutely sustained, might generally be needed to tackle these downward spirals of difficulty.

We were constantly aware of the awkwardness of mobilising general public and taxpayer support for preventive action, perhaps especially as rising average age levels among the electorate reduced the proportion with direct responsibility for children and consequent sympathy for assigning scarce resources to their support and nurture. It was suggested that presentation of prevention strategies might more fruitfully be focused upon the strengthening of public health and safety rather than the pursuit of crime; but there was often no escape from high-profile media attention to dramatic episodes or problems, generating popular expectation of “tough” corrective action.

The importance of public attitudes was evident to us all. Punishment of wrongdoers was inevitably a powerful demand, amid understandable outrage and fear; and indeed the ultimate option of incarceration had to be part of any realistic overall armoury for addressing the problems, even though we recognised both that deterrence was of limited efficacy in the prevention of impulsive youthful crime and that high probability of being called to account was generally a better preventative than the prospect of long sentences. In the most severe instances society was entitled simply to have gross offenders kept off the streets. Punishment and prevention should moreover not be presented as mutually-exclusive strategic alternatives. All that said, most of us were keen to see the public made more thoroughly aware - even if this entailed risks in political exposition - that complementary ways of tackling the problems were needed, and that the preventive approach (sometimes more difficult to demonstrate persuasively, as relating to what had not rather than what had happened) was by no means a soft or flabby option.

As we examined the components of preventive strategies we reverted continually to the importance of schools - the universal experience - not only directly as imparters of values and life-skills but for their wider contribution in their communities. (We heard an eloquent argument that all this ought to be reflected in the evaluation of schools by broader and more apt criteria than just examination results.) Just for example, schools could often provide a focus - sometimes the only available focus - for parental understanding and cooperation in crime prevention, and perhaps even for education in parenting skills, not least for single parents whose growing numbers might be among the predisposing factors to juvenile offending. And it was vigorously urged that the tendency for schools to close early (typically at three in the afternoon, or even earlier), as well as under-using a valuable asset, contributed greatly – by putting young people out without occupation and unsupervised at times when working parents were usually not at home – to the fact that the hours between three and six usually saw high incidences of youth crime.

Our discussions emphasised also the value of exploiting constructively periods when young people were, for one reason or another, in the hands of public institutions. Several of us were minded to question whether enough was done – though we recognised difficulties – to foster sound values and skills among children taken into care, whose needs for such help were inherently greater than most. And we were keen that, where incarceration was judged necessary, the time spent there should include substantial education and counselling, with positive aftercare arrangements to follow. Imprisonment was in itself a period of enforced alienation from society, and even the worst offenders had eventually to return to the community.

We could not ignore the fact that much of what we were disposed to favour required more resources for preventive aspects of strategy; and we were conscious accordingly of the massive (and mostly growing) allocations now going to the criminal-justice component. Our discussion of that component was not minded to regard the formal age of criminal responsibility, or of qualification to be dealt with in juvenile rather than adult courts, as crucial issues – these were matters which varied with national practice (though we did hear a comment that wherever possible juvenile courts, as being more flexible, should for preference be used even for very serious crime). We heard of highly interesting experiments being developed to extend the range of graded options for dealing with offenders – in particular, the use of “conferencing” arrangements involving police, victims and offenders together in dealing at least with situations where the offence was (as very often) admitted and not of great gravity.

This experiment – largely police-led, in the example most cited – reminded us of the key role which the police must play in any strategy; they were in the front line of society’s contact with offenders, and were the best-informed agency, the providers of first-aid to victims and the source of necessary referrals to other agencies. Their role was demanding and needed careful and relevant training (for example in the skills of conflict resolution) as well as conditions of service able to attract entrants of quality. All this applied generally also, we realised, to other key professionals.

Time constraints prevented our doing more than register briefly the significant contribution which voluntary organisations, with their distinctive strengths, made within prevention strategies – or that which might come from the business world, in recognition of its clear practical interest, from several standpoints, in the reduction of youth crime. It was important to involve both these sectors as fully as possible. But by way of envoi we noted still more vividly the need to involve young people themselves (especially locally, where we wanted action to be focused) in discussion of what was needed and what ought to be done – a discussion which must entail at least as much listening to them, and enlisting their imagination and involvement, as talking to them.


This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chair: The Honorable Janet Reno
Attorney General of the United States


Dr Anthony Doob

Centre of Criminology, University of Toronto
Mr Norman D Inkster
Formerly Commissioner, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, 1987-94
Professor Irvin Waller
Director General, International Centre for the Prevention of Crime, Montreal

Ministerialist Wolfgang Linckelmann

Head of sub-division for National and International Youth Support, Federal Ministry for the Family, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth
Professor Dr Christian Pfeiffer
Director, Criminology Research Institute of Lower Saxony
Dr Helmut Willems
Director, Department for Youth and Politics, German Youth Institute, Munich

Dr Hans M Willemse

Senior Policy Adviser, Strategic Planning and Programmes, Ministry of Justice

Her Royal Highness The Princess Royal

President of Patrons, Crime Concern
Lady Acland
Deputy Chairman, Slough and Windsor Youth Court Panel
Mr Steven Bradford
Home Affairs researcher, Liberal Democrat Party
Mr Jon Bright
Director of Field Operations, Crime Concern
Mr Brian Briscoe
Chief Executive, Local Government Association
Mr Niall G Campbell
Head of Social Work Services Group, Scottish Office
Mrs Kathleen N Duncan
Vice Chair, Crime Concern
Lord Elton TD

Formerly Minister of State, Home Office
Mr David Faulkner CB
Senior Research Associate, Oxford Centre for Criminological Research
Mr Alan Finlayson OBE
Mr Roger Graef
Writer, director and producer of films
Ms Margaret Hodge MBE MP
Member of Parliament (Labour), Barking
Mr John F Jones              
Head Teacher, Ruffwood School, Kirkby, Merseyside
The Rt Hon Sir Peter Lloyd MP
Formerly Minister of State, Home Office
The Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Lyell QC MP
Attorney General
Mr John Lyon
Deputy Director, Criminal Justice, Criminal Policy Directorate, Home Office
Mrs Barbara Mills QC
Director of Public Prosecutions
Chief Superintendent Caroline Nicholl, Thames Valley Police
Mr Mark Perfect
The Audit Commission (on secondment from HM Treasury)
Mr Charles Pollard QPM
Chief Constable, Thames Valley Police
Mr David Utting
Joseph Rowntree Foundation
Mr Norman Warner
Senior Policy Adviser to the Shadow Home Secretary
Mr Nigel Whiskin MBE
Chief Executive, Crime Concern
Miss Ann Widdecombe MP
Minister of State, Home Office
The Rt Hon The Lord Windlesham CVO PC
Formerly Minister of State, Home Office

Mr Mikhail Kolodyazhny

Senior Desk Officer, Department of Foreign Relations, Ministry of the Interior, Kiev

Mr Ron L Carroll

Scout Executive, Boy Scouts of America
The Honorable Charles B DeWitt
Formerly Director, National Institute of Justice
The Honorable Larry E DuBois
Commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Correction
Dean James Alan Fox
Dean, College of Criminal Justice, Northeastern University, Boston
Professor Martin Guggenheim
Professor of Clinical Law, New York University School of Law
Mr Kent Markus
Counsellor to the Attorney General for Youth Violence
The Honorable E Leo Milonas
Associate Justice, Appellate Division, First Judicial Department, New York State Supreme Court
The Honorable Jeremiah W (Jay) Nixon
Attorney General of Missouri
Mr Hugh Price
President, National Urban League Inc
Justice Frank Sullivan Jr
Justice, Supreme Court of Indiana
The Honorable Richard Thornburgh
Formerly Attorney General of the United States