Youth Crime – are there common causes?

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youth crime common causes

Stereotyping is easy.  It requires no thought, just bringing all our assumptions under one umbrella, mixing in our fear then making pronouncements with enough confidence they have an air of credibility.

Stereotyping is common in youth crime.  Assumptions and judgements are made that young people are “out of control”, just needing discipline and firm guidelines to be brought back into control.  Get tough on crime policies and programs are often put forward as ways to deal with youth crime.  Many of these programs are unsuccessful and allowed to quietly be ignored and forgotten. 

Deterrents such as custodial sentences are necessary, yet these deterrents should only be one aspect of dealing with youth crime.  Emphasis should be on the programs and supports required by young people to enable them to achieve their goals and live productively within the community.

Take the issue of homelessness.  It is easy to stereotype young people who are homeless as all being involved in criminal activity.  This stereotype is incorrect.  I worked for over twenty years in the homelessness sector with men who were at risk of homelessness.  The majority of young people and men who experience homelessness are not involved in crime.  In fact, the majority of young people who are homeless access homelessness services as a result of interpersonal reasons such as family violence or family breakdown. (In 2017 – 18 around 29,600 children receiving specialist homelessness services accessed these services for interpersonal reasons such as family violence or family breakdown). [1]  In Western Australia in 2017 – 18 13% of 15 – 24-year-old young people were clients of specialist homelessness services. [2]

Family violence is traumatic.  It is traumatic at any age; however, it is particularly traumatic for a young person where their sense of safety and security in the world at large is fractured by their experience of violence.

Homelessness usually occurs with poverty, and lack of financial security.  Without the security of a home, personal belongings and identification documents often get lost with the constant moving.  Loss of identification documents means a young person cannot apply for or access unemployment support. 

The impact of homelessness for young people reaches to every facet of their lives.  For example, sleep.  We all need it; we know we do not function well when we are sleep deprived.  To enjoy restful, recuperative sleep we need to feel secure and safe.  When a young person is homeless and particularly when they are street present their sleep is compromised.  Lack of sleep has links with impaired cognitive control and executive functions which is related to delinquent behaviours. [3]

We know that young male adolescents are more likely to engage in risk taking behaviour.  When young men are homeless and sleep deprived, they are more likely to engage in risk taking behaviour for the simple fact their cognitive control and executive thinking functions are compromised by the lack of sleep.

It is easy to make judgements.  It is easy to make assumptions about what young people should do or could do.  It is easy to make pronouncements based on the stereotypes we have created.  However perhaps before we express our assumptions or our judgements we should pause, reflect and think about;

  • Do we have enough counselling and support services for young people to assist them deal with the family trauma they have experienced?
  • Do we, as a society have enough support services for families in crisis, so they do not disintegrate under violence and trauma?
  • Are processes designed to assist a young person obtain some financial security or from a mindset of seeing the young person as bludging.

Are we providing hope?

While justice may be blindfolded, it should not be so blind that it does not provide hope for young people.

– Written by David Kernohan, Director of Youth Legal Services

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