Time trends in youth crime and in justice system responses
In political debate and everyday conversation it is widely assumed that crime is rising, that crimes committed by young people, being a large part of the problem, are also rising, and that offensive but often non-criminal conduct among the young – dubbed ‘antisocial behaviour’ by politicians – is also on the increase. That there is solid and detailed evidence which flatly contradicts these assumptions seems to make little impact either on politicians or on the general public. It is true that recorded crime in England and Wales increased tenfold between 1950 and 1994, and crime surveys confirm a strong rise from the first year they covered (1981) up to the mid 1990s. There is no doubt that young offenders played a major role in this large, even spectacular, post-war rise in crime. Equally remarkable, however, is the reversal of the upward trend, established for half a century or more, that occurred around 1994. Since then all crime, however measured, has declined substantially, whereas violent crime has either levelled off or declined, depending on whether recorded crime statistics or survey-based measures are used. Within that overall picture, there has also been a substantial decline in offences committed by young people. Antisocial behaviour also seems to have decreased. What has remained high during this period is ‘noise’ about youth crime, with high levels of public anxiety, media scrutiny, and political debate. It is hard to disentangle this ‘noise’ and the activity generated by the system response from objective measures. To an important extent, therefore, political debate about youth crime has created the problem it tries to address.