Offending by youth comprises a central concern in contemporary society, and provides a significant focus for law, policing and punishment. The relationship between age and offending is borne out by official crime statistics, which suggest that the ‘peak age’ for offending by males is eighteen, and for females just fifteen. After these ages, there appears to be a steady decline (or pattern of desistance) in terms of individuals’ tendency to offend. This relation between youth and crime is also confirmed by self-report studies. For example, Flood-Page et al. (2000) found that 60 per cent of males aged 16-17 admitted to having committed a crime. The crimes committed by youth are predominantly property offences, such as theft, burglary, handling of stolen goods and criminal damage. The correlation between youth and crime is also reflected in patterns of imprisonment, with almost 25 per cent of inmates in UK adult prisons being under twenty-one years of age, in addition to those incarcerated in juvenile detention facilities tailored to those under eighteen years of age. Criminologists have offered a wide range of explanations for youth
offending. Psychological criminologists have argued that adolescence is a period of inevitable turmoil and crisis, suggesting that such disturbance helps account for youthful participation in crime. Theories of developmental psychology claim that individuals, as they move from childhood to adulthood, pass through a number of stages of moral learning; it is only with maturity that individuals are fully able to appreciate and apply moral principles to regulate their own and others’ behaviour. As such, juveniles occupy a space of moral immaturity in which they are likely to act upon their impulses with limited regard for the impact of their actions upon others. From a more socially oriented perspective, developmental criminologists claim a strong correlation between youth offending and experiences of parental neglect, parental conflict and family disruption and breakdown. Therefore, youth crime is seen as the result of failed socialisation and the absence of appropriate controls ordinarily provided by family relationships. Subcultural and differential association perspectives on delinquency, in contrast, stress the need to situate crime in the context of social group membership. The groups to which individuals belong will have distinctive shared beliefs, attitudes and values, and it is this distinctive subculture that both licenses and rewards behaviour at odds with mainstream social norms and rules. It is through association with criminal and deviant subcultures that young people will learn not only the techniques for carrying out crimes but also the
attitudes and values that support and validate such behaviour. Subcultural explanations have also been given a social class dimension by those criminologists who view working-class youth cultures as expressions of status frustration. Youth from lower socio-economic backgrounds, who find themselves denied access to the socially approved paths to attain recognition and status, instead formulate their oppositional values that stress rule-breaking as a source of social esteem. Conservative criminologists have in contrast claimed that a generational change in cultural attitudes is responsible for large increases in youth crime, with writers such as Charles Murray arguing that today’s youth are no longer committed to hard work and civic responsibility, preferring instead to lead lives of idleness and crime. However, other criminologists have challenged the notion that
young people in fact have a special propensity to behave in a criminal or deviant manner. Instead they argue that society’s preoccupation with youth offending has its roots in a tendency to scapegoat young people and to view youthful behaviour as delinquent, antisocial and dangerous. Geoffrey Pearson (1983) charts the ongoing waves of moral panic about young people that can be traced back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The kinds of views about moral decay amongst the young expressed by Murray and others can in fact be seen as a recurrent feature of social concerns in every generation. The subsequent targeting of the young by politicians, lawmakers and law enforcers serves to demonise and criminalise what might otherwise be considered fairly innocuous behaviour. Given such fears, a disproportionate amount of time, energy and resources are expended in policing the young, inevitably resulting in more offences by young people being detected, thereby inflating the presence of youth in crime statistics. It is certainly true that recent decades have seen a whole raft of new offences being created that are focused upon youth culture and young people’s everyday activities. Well-known instances in the UK include the criminalisation of ‘rave’ parties in the 1980s and the introduction of Antisocial Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) in the 1990s. By creating criminal offences out of young people’s presence and leisure activities in public places, more and more juveniles are brought into the criminal justice system (a process of netwidening), which in turn simply reinforces the public perception that youth crime is a problem ‘out of control’ and that even more harsh measures are required to curtail it. As a result critical criminologists tend to favour the decriminalisation of youth, arguing that this is the best way in which young people can be kept away from
imprisonment and punishment, processes that merely serve to further exclude the young from the social mainstream.