31 October 1997 - 02 November 1997

The Prevention of Youth Crime: Schooling, Neighbourhood and Intervention

Chair: The Rt Hon The Lord Windlesham CVO PC

In December 1996 a broad survey of the problems of youth crime, and of options for dealing with them, left Ditchley with a strong sense of urgency and possibility combined; and we met again accordingly - with the help of generous support from the Lloyds TSB Foundation for England and Wales - to concentrate our attention more sharply upon a particular aspect: what could be done by way of prevention at stages before young people slipped deep into grave or repeated crime. Our discussion was stimulated by awareness that the theme as a whole remained high on political agendas in many developed countries. The incidence of youth crime remained worryingly severe everywhere even if its most prevalent forms varied; property-related offences bulked large in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, while in the United States the availability of guns and the temptations of “crack” cocaine underlay a continued growth in violence even where other offences seemed to have peaked.

There emerged at the outset of our debates, and persisted throughout, a powerful insistence on the value of early intervention, before patterns of persistent offending could form and when the practical returns on problem-solving investment were much higher than at the later offence-based and punishment-oriented end of the policy spectrum. Emphasis was needed on specific action and on the individual child, who must be made to feel distinctive and valued. As to timing, there was a strong case for universal screening of children soon after birth, perhaps by health visitors or similar professionals, to give advice and monitor risk factors. For subsequent stages, we heard powerful argument that if a child was going astray the moment of maximum shock, and thus of best corrective opportunity, was on first engagement with the criminal-justice system. There seemed, so several participants suggested, a significant and mostly-helpful shift in public mood - at least at operational levels - away from primary concern about precise rights and due legal process towards a bolder, broader and more pragmatic view of what legitimate authority - the police, the judiciary, the school, community leaders of one kind or another (though these might not be easily identified) - could properly do in pragmatic and constructive intervention.

As at the previous conference, there was vigorous stress upon the value of close partnership - especially close local partnership - among different professions (as well as among communities, non-governmental organisations and sometimes businesses) in tackling problems; and we noted the value in this regard of joint training effort. But we stubbed our toes again on the familiar difficulty of how to organise such partnerships effectively and durably across functional boundaries and department financial allocations. No country, it was asserted, had managed to establish within government a clear focus and responsibility for addressing youth-crime problems comprehensively in the way that (for example) public health ones generally were. Even where, as perhaps in France, public culture assigned responsibility firmly to the state, coordination and shared perceptions remained difficult to sustain; and the tension between central policy or standards and local initiative and flexibility was another recurrent challenge.

Difficulty was not however our leitmotiv. We heard numerous examples of techniques and approaches that worked well in one situation or another. Even if none of them offered universal solutions, there was much scope for learning and exchange of ideas to facilitate flexible selection of what would yield results in particular environments - especially if, as was highly desirable, the focus was upon thoroughly-evaluated in-the-round outcomes rather than input, process, “common-sense” hunch or professional compartmentalisation.

Prevention worked best, we realised, in communities with some shared sense of values and standards, and with a sense of “owning” their space and services - not easily achieved in deprived areas, where leaders and catalysts were hard to find; but even there, success stories were to be found. We gave perhaps less time than we should to talking about ways to support parents - especially young ones, and still more those whose own experience of childhood had not been happy and to whom feelings of family commitment and entitlement to exercise authority did not come readily; but it was urged that down-to-earth training could indeed help them. We noted soberly that high rates of expected unemployment - and especially the large-scale disappearance of the manual industrial occupations to which the unsuccessful-at-school would once have looked for their job prospects - often compounded crime-prone factors such as disregard for or despair about any future beyond the immediate.

The contribution and responsibility of schools featured centrally in every phase of our conference. Spirited exchanges about traditional versus innovative curriculum content shaded gradually into near-consensus (alongside a general scepticism of broad lessons in “citizenship”, as distinct from practical instruction in ordinary life-skills) that whatever conceptual approach schools might take the key need was that they should implement it well; good teaching of either curricular bent could instil concepts of legitimate authority, individual responsibility and the meaning and value of achievement, as preparation for the realities of working life. “Child-centred” approaches which sought to shield pupils from any experience of setback or difficulty were no true service, and no stimulus, to them. Acceptance of illiteracy, in particular, would encumber children with a massive burden; educational failure in such basic respects as this was one of the surest predictors of propensity to offend; and action to rescue individuals from such failure needed to be taken early in school years, not at age fourteen or fifteen.

Pupils needed to become habituated in schools (even if some rebelliousness was often part of growing up) to concepts of clear rules and of consequences if they were broken. There was, so it was suggested, much merit in legitimising school rules by forms of democratic endorsement; it was by no means the case - given that most school-children were more likely to experience offending as victims than as culprits - that this would produce softness or anarchy.

All this was undoubtedly to ask a great deal of teachers, especially in the more “difficult” areas; the competence required was diverse, and the personal demands frequently stressful. Communities needed to mobilise and express support for teachers; and several participants suggested that schools might increasingly need to have within their staffs people with other professional skills than those of teaching itself.

We had to acknowledge that schools faced difficulties over truancy, and over severely-disruptive pupils. We heard encouraging US account of judge-led systems to tackle truancy through involving parents and other key actors without formal court process; and there were suggestions that incentives (such as rewards for high attendance levels) could be devised to work against current temptations to schools to acquiesce passively in truancy by the uncooperative. Expulsion/exclusion raised awkward issues; in extreme cases it might seem unavoidable to protect the proper interests of the majority, but its effect was often simply to shift problems and offending out onto the streets. Some special teaching structures, despite the risk of stigma, might be inescapable for the most intractable; but no country could point to an ideal formula.

We registered, without getting far into, the issue of what might be done about the time-window of 3 pm-8 pm when youth offending was mostly at its highest (a point, we observed in passing, which raised questions about the utility of late-night curfews). Might school facilities be used for longer periods? - no doubt, but that would need more staff of one kind or another, perhaps older people might help, or more senior pupils trained in leadership and organisational skills? Might better recreational facilities help? Probably yes, but only if they were truly local - on the block, not farther afield. That led us on to wonder about the crime-prevention value of giving experience away from home in adventure-pursuits or the like - some participants were sceptical of the wisdom of such “glimpse of another world” endeavours; as in many of the youth-crime-preventing possibilities, sustained follow-up was essential if value was not to be negligible or even negative. That was true also of “boot camps” and of mentoring - this last an approach that won much commendation, alongside warnings of its high cost per individual.

Another approach that attracted favourable comment, and perhaps with fewer “buts” about relative cost-effectiveness, was the increasing use (for example in Britain) of “conferencing” as a way of dealing with early- stage young offenders: the victim, the culprit and key figures in their environment, under skilled police or other facilitation, met to discuss the event candidly and seek agreement on admission, apology and redress.

Time constraints inevitably left some key topics scarcely touched. We knew, for example, that alcohol and drugs were major elements in the youth-crime scene, and that much more needed to be done in particular to denoimalise and delegitimise the latter within youth cultures (though we did not identify how). As importantly, we could do little more than wring out hands about how to keep out of crime children taken from their families into official care - last resort though it ought to be, such removal was sometimes unavoidable; but despite good intentions the characteristics of in-care systems - for example in respect of encouraging good performance at school - often left continuing crime-propensity factors untackled.

And (as so many conferences ask) what about the media in all these issues? We heard divergent views about whether violence on television contributed much to youth crime - the sharper prompt perhaps came from real-life experience of violence, especially in the home; and the greater evil of TV might be its widespread use as an electronic child-minder in the place of parental interest More constructively if optimistically, we hoped that the media might be persuaded to present the issues of preventing youth crime in informed and balanced ways, recognising the realities of experiment and risk rather than trumpeting single-event scandals. But that would require effort and patient communication by preventive professions - and by politicians.

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

Chairman : The Rt Hon The Lord Windlesham CVO PC
Principal, Brasenose College, Oxford; President, Victim Support


Dr Anthony N Doob
Professor, Centre of Criminology, University of Toronto
Mr Rick Kollins
Senior Superintendent - Curriculum, Toronto Board of Education
Professor Irvin Waller
Director General, International Centre for the Prevention of Crime, Montreal

Commissaire Principal Frédéric Lauze
Direction Centrale de la Sécurité Publique, Paris
Professeur Nicole Le Guennec
Professor of History, University of Paris XUI

Mrs Kathleen N Duncan
Director General, TSB Foundation for England and Wales; Vice-Chair, Crime Concern
Mr David Faulkner CB
Senior Research Associate, Oxford Centre for Criminological Research
Mr Roger Graef
Writer, director and producer of films; member, College Analytique de Sécurité Urbaine
Mr William A Jeffrey
Under Secretary, Economic and Domestic Affairs Secretariat, Cabinet Office
Ms Melanie Phillips
Correspondent, The Observer
Ms Denise Platt CBE
Head of Social Services, Local Government Association
Mr Charles Pollard QPM
Chief Constable, Thames Valley Police
Ms Usha Prashar CBE
Chairman, The Parole Board
Dr Judy Renshaw
Project Manager, Health and Social Services’ Studies Department, Audit Commission
Mr Rob Smith
Director, Pupils, Parents & Youth Group, Department for Education and Employment
Lady Staughton
Lay Magistrate, Inner London Youth Court
Mr Graham Walker
Head of Government Business, Arthur Andersen
Mr Norman Warner
Senior Policy Adviser to the Home Secretary
Mr Nigel Whiskin MBE
Chief Executive, Crime Concern
Mr Gerald Wilson CB
Head, Scottish Office Education and Industry Department
Mr Tom Wylie
Chief Executive, National Youth Agency

The Honorable Charles B DeWitt
Co-owner Lafayette Group Inc, Washington DC; Director, National Institute of Justice, 1990-93
Dr Elaine Johnson
Professor of Social Work, Morgan State University, Baltimore
Mr Edward H Jurith
General Counsel to the Office of National Drug Abuse Control Policy, The White House
Mr Robert H McNulty
President, Partners for Livable Communities, Washington DC
Professor Mark Moore
Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice, Policy and Management, John F Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
Mr Nicholas O’Han
Principal, Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, New York
The Honorable Viola Taliaferro
Judge, Monroe Circuit Court, Bloomington Indiana
The Honorable Lawrence F Terry
Judge of the Superior Court, State of California
The Honorable Jeremy Travis
Director, National Institute of Justice