Existing evidence shows that young people are more likely to offend than adults. According to the youth justice system in England and Wales, though there has been a notable decline in the number of children who receive caution or sentence over the last ten years, youth crime is still a major concern in the United Kingdom. For instance, according to National Statistics, despite contributing to approximately 20% of the overall population in England and Wales, the number of children on remand make up the highest proportion of the custodial population. The interplay of age and crime has been an interesting topic for criminal studies for many years now.
Criminologists and stakeholders in the justice system seek to understand why young people are drawn toward offending more than adults. Other factors such as gender, race, and class have also elicited interest. Statistics from the National Statistics and the Youth Justice Board shows that by proportion, young males are more likely to offend than females (Youth Justice Statistics, 2022, 2). Also, though there is a lack of adequate evidence on the relationship between crime and race in the United Kingdom, statistics from other regions, such as the United States, indicate notable disproportionate representation of the Black community in the justice system. This study examines the interplay of gender, race, and class with youth crime in light of criminological research and theories. The study relies on the psychological and sociological theories of crime to provide insight into some of the reasons youth crime is on the rise or happens in the first place. In addition, the study will provide possible approaches to addressing youth crime. Some approaches include having tailored interventions that support young people with adaptation challenges to prevent crime and focusing more on rehabilitating offenders than subjecting them to harsh punishment.
For many centuries, criminologists and stakeholders in the justice system have sought to develop plausible and useful explanations for why people engage in deviant behavior and crime. Different perspectives on this explanation have cropped up. Champion et al. (2016, 70) give a theoretical explanation of why young people engage in crime. Social learning theory is a commonly used theory to understand the relationship between crime and age. The social learning theory posits that early childhood experience is an important subset of subsequent adult personality characteristics. According to Champion et al. (2016, 71), children with traumatic early childhood experiences are more likely to engage in criminal activities such as substance abuse than those with normal experiences. For example, children who grew up in households with domestic violence are at a higher risk of intimate partner violence.
The social learning theory argues that young people’s behavior results from what they see their significant others, such as parents or guardians, do (Champion et al., 2016, 71). A study by Sürmeli (2012, 80) finds that children exposed to violent video games are likely to be more aggressive than average children. Though Sürmeli (2012, 80) concludes that many factors contribute to this finding, there is no denying that children can learn violent behavior, which they can then practice in real life when they play video games for a longer time. Social learning theory also plays an important role in peer-relationship—an important factor that has been used to explain crime among young people. Children who interact with violent neighborhoods or peers with criminal records are highly likely to start abusing drugs and alcohol and learn to use weapons at an early age than those with law-abiding peers.
Sociological theories of crime present new and debatable approaches to understanding why young people engage in delinquent behavior. Sociological theories are notorious for building the relationship between race and socioeconomic status with a crime. The concentric zone hypothesis is an excellent example of how sociological theories have for many decades explored this relationship. According to Champion et al. (2016, 72), the concentric zone hypothesis was dominantly used by early criminal theorists who attempted to explain why some parts of Chicago and other major metropolitan areas that witnessed rapid urbanization reported increased crime rates compared to those of other regions. Chicago experienced increased youth violence and crime between 1900 and 1930 due to urbanization and the sudden growth of the informal settlement.
Champion et al. (2016, 72) note that the increased youth crime rate in Chicago was not an isolated scenario. Regions with informal settlements record higher crime rates in major cities than those with organized settlements. For instance, in the United Kingdom, areas with unsafe and unaffordable housing report significantly high rates of youth crime than in areas with formal settlements. Theoretically, Achakanalli and Kumbhar (2017, 8353) argue that children in slum settlements roam around and have little attention from their parents or adults. As a result, it is hard for their parents to notice a change in behavior or relationship with bad peer groups. Also, these informal settlements are where adults with criminal records hide from law enforcement, increasing the chances of interacting with people with criminal records.
A young person’s socioeconomic status or class also has plenty to predict regarding their criminal potential. In a study conducted in an Australian jurisdiction between 2008 and 2018, McCarthy (2021, 769) finds a higher concentration of offending in youth from the low socioeconomic community than those from high socioeconomic communities. Theorists drawn from many disciplines have argued that young people from low-income households are more likely to commit violent crimes. Bonding theory, or social contract theory, explores why this assumption may be true. Social contract theory argues that societal bonds determine a child’s behavior. Children need a positive and supportive environment to thrive. A supportive environment can mean having parents or a community guided by morals.
The greater the bond between the child with their parents and teachers, the less the likelihood that these children will engage in violent or delinquent behavior. On the other hand, lack of basic needs such as parental love or engagement and poor parental care and supervision may contribute hugely to children’s development of delinquent behavior. Children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are subjected to challenging environments such as poor school environments or gang-rampant neighborhoods that go a long way in contributing to their criminal behavior. On the other hand, the subculture theory argues that young people from low SES seek alternative means to achieve their goals when they are unable to do so through legal means. Every child has a dream. While some dream of having the best jobs possible and earning a good salary, others dream of owning the best houses and driving the latest brand of cars on the market. Failing to achieve these dreams through education and social navigation may push young people into crime. As a result, many studies have concluded that factors associated with low-economic status contribute to a disproportionately higher crime rate among young people living in such conditions than those from higher SES.
However, there is another side of the story regarding the relationship between youth crime and SES. Theoretically, it would be assumed that children from high SES are less likely to commit crimes because they live in a safe neighborhood, go to the best schools, and have a good bond with their parents. A study by Champion et al. (2016, 73) finds a notable trend in increasing criminal behavior among young people with high SES. Some studies have also associated monetary freedom among young people as a potential predictor of delinquent behavior. Having money and other resources such as a car among young people can be a criminal risk factor (Connolly et al., 2017, 237). (Connolly et al. (2017, 238) argue that these resources eliminate or reduce family attachments that may lead to increased dating or increased use of alcohol and drugs among these young people.
In 2019, Scheerhout and Gibbons found a thriving illicit drug trade among rich kids in the wealthiest areas of the U.K., with parents’ turning a blind eye to the problem. Scheerhout and Gibbons (2019, n.p) say that children from wealthy families openly use drugs at many parties and prom nights in some places, such as around Altrincham. Scheerhout and Gibbons (2019, n.p) continue by providing an admission from one of the teenage boys who had attended such parties. The boy in question says that young boys and girls who attend parties where drugs are used openly by such drugs use their pocket money. These children not only use the internet to purchase drugs, but they also have contacts with suburban dealers (Scheerhout and Gibbons, 2019, n.p).
The availability of disposable income for these children gives them an upper hand in committing crimes over those living in low SES. This case begs for a new understanding and a look into the theoretical assumption that has always criminalized young people from lower SES. According to Champion et al. (2016, 74), the subculture theory best explains this behavior. Subculture theory argues that people can engage in criminal behavior to establish or gain recognition or a state among their peers. This theory has predominantly been used to explain bullying behavior. Also, it has been used to explore why young people engage in substance and alcohol use. Youth with peers from high SES may engage in substance and alcohol use at parties because they want to maintain their subculture status.
Gender Difference in Youth Offending
Gender is an essential element in studying crime. Studies and evidence from almost all jurisdictions show that males are highly likely to engage in crime than females. The same gender trend can be seen with youth offending. According to Farrington et al. (2019, 25), like many regions, the United Kingdom has reported a huge gender difference in referral to juvenile courts. According to self-reports, boys committed more crimes and were referred to the juvenile courts more frequently than girls in the United Kingdom (Farrington et al., 2019, 25).
Like SES and race, gender is also an area that has gained reputable attention in studying youth crime. According to Champion et al. (2016, 182), different hypotheses have been raised to explain these differences. Champions et al. (2016, 182) argue that the historical explanation for these differences ranges from socialization differences to impulsivity, self-control differentials, and victimization and abuse. Farrington et al. (2019, 26) support some of the arguments made by Champion et al. (2016, 183) by stating that there have been cases of differential treatment of male and female offenders, a factor that may contribute to the huge difference. Farrington et al. (2019, 26) note that female offenders are treated leniently compared to males.
The chivalry or paternalism approach these studies take assumes that boys have been placed on a pedestal and that the law or people enforcing it behave gallantly towards the boy child (Heidensohn and Silvestri, 2012, 350). This law enforcement approach shows that boys are more likely to be stopped and searched by law enforcement. Also, when found in a compromising situation, law enforcement is highly likely to take a young man into custody compared to giving them a warning and letting them go, which is common with girls.
What is Being Done and What Should be Done
Youth is an important stage in human development. It is a period in life that people transition from being dependent to independent. During this time, young people have plenty of choices. It is a period when they try new things and build social relationships. A positive and healthy transition during this period can predict better life in the future. However, from evidence gathered in this study, youth can also mark a difficult time in a person’s life since it is when someone is highly likely to make bad decisions, such as engaging in crime. Alexander et al. (2020, 110) note that decisions people make as youths can detriment the path of their lives. However, everyone is prone to making mistakes, and, therefore, a single wrong decision a young person makes should not be used to judge them and be a barrier in their future endeavors (Alexander et al., 2020, 111). The current justice system does almost the opposite of what Alexander et al. (2020, 110) expect—punishing young offenders rather than providing them with proper rehabilitation.
London area has seen a substantial decline in the number of crimes in recent years. According to Ramshaw et al. (2019, 1), this decline can be attributed to commendable policies and interventions that have been taken in the region over the last few decades. According to Ramshaw et al. (2019, 1), one of these interventions includes giving young people a voice on matters involving crime and safety issues that affect them. The Youth Voice Survey 2018, conducted by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC), is an excellent example of such involvement. According to Ramshaw et al. (2019, 12), the survey gave young people living in London to express themselves and make their opinion on making their surroundings safe and free from crime.
One of the study’s key findings touched on the young people’s opinion on the police and the measures law enforcement can put into preventing youth crime. According to Ramshaw et al. (2019, 12), most young people surveyed supported the stop and search. However, this opinion is mixed as even those who support this approach believe that police have violated their powers to stop and search, highlighting the importance of quality of interaction between the police and young people. Listening to young people gives law enforcement better and ample room to learn and fix areas that need fixing. For instance, quality interaction between police and young people will not lead to discriminatory treatment evident in the Black community and boys vs. girls. Also, in the survey, Ramshaw et al. (2019, 17) find that many young people in the United Kingdom lack proper education about the consequences of knife crimes and other violent crimes. These young people agree that knife crime is a big challenge in London, with 26% agreeing that they know a person who has carried a knife (Ramshaw et al., 2019, 17). Most of the surveyed young people agreed that proper education involving the police, schools, and previous offenders and victims would go a long way in preventing youth crimes in many parts of the country. Other regions need to borrow a leaf from MOPAC. There is no need to debate policies that affect young people without first seeking to hear from them.
Discussion and Conclusion
Gender, race, and class are predictors of youth violence across the globe. In the United Kingdom, though crime has been declining, many young people still engage in crimes that could be prevented. Crime is a major social threat, and youth crime ranks as one of the major issues burdening many societies across the globe. With the youth population projected to increase across the globe and in major cities, it is important to understand why young people engage in crime and preventive measures. This study took the literature review approach to examine how different authors and studies have addressed the research question. The theoretical framework and literature reviewed show a unique interplay between gender, race, and class in youth crime. In terms of class, the theoretical assumption is that young people from low SES are more positioned to engage in crime than those from high SES. Bonding theory or social contract theory explains the relationship between poverty and crime among young people. Theoretically, young people living in poor households lack positive bonds with their environment and are more likely to commit crimes. Also, social learning theory argues that young people from low-income families live in neighborhoods with criminal gangs and hence can learn criminal behavior more easily than those living in leafy suburbs. Though many studies support this assumption, there are pockets of cases that give contradicting findings. The case of rich kids using disposable money to buy drugs and engage in other crimes opens a new window to understanding the relationship between class and crime. This study concludes that there is a need for more studies on the relationship between class and crime as it believes that young people from low-income households suffer from the labeling effect that subjects them to discriminatory treatment.
In terms of gender, the study finds that boys are more likely to engage in crime and be referred to juvenile courts than girls. The theoretical assumption is that socialization differences and impulsivity in boys and girls are the major contributors to this gap. However, findings from this study also show preferential treatment in girls that have led to a low number of reported offenses in girls than boys. These gender-based discriminatory approaches treat girls with leniency but boys with brutality. Girls have as much prepositioned to commit a crime as their male counterparts but are less likely to be taken into custody or referral to juvenile courts preferred against them. These findings are based on two studies (Champion et al., 2016, Farrington et al., 2019). These studies sought to understand why there is a huge difference in gender reporting in official reporting and self-reporting. Again, this study recommends further studies on the relationship between gender and youth crime.
Finally, the study examined measures that should be taken to address the problem. The study used a survey by MOPAC in the area of London. The survey aimed to give young people more power in decision-making on matters involving young people and crime. Therefore, it is recommended that other regions need to engage young people by getting their opinion on how the problem of crime should be addressed. An approach that involves young people will provide more insight into the problem.
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- Scheerhout, J. and Gibbons, B., 2019. Secret drugs trade ‘thriving’ among rich kids in wealthiest areas of the U.K., [Online]. Available at: https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/uk-news/secret-drugs-trade-thriving-among-16591072. Accessed May 5, 2022.
- Sürmeli, S., 2012. The effect of violent games on aggression. Maastricht Student Journal of Psychology and Neuroscience, 1.
- Youth Justice Statistics, 2022. Youth Justice Statistics, England and Wales, April 2020 to March 2021. [Online]. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1054236/Youth_Justice_Statistics_2020-21.pdf. Accessed on May 5, 2022.