Part 2: Youth Violence - What is not working
Following on from Part 1, where I discussed the issues of apathy, inaction and normalisation which seem to be trends with adults in addressing youth violence. I will now look at the problem with present interventions. In particular, what is being done and why a lot of this at best fails to address youth violence and at worst promotes or colludes with those young people most at risk?
Interventions based on fear:
I have seen a growing trend in interventions based on fear or ‘scaring’ young people such as ‘scared straight’. Examples of this range from posters of fists or knifes with a line through them to decreeing the punishment if you get caught to medical professionals taking young people to hospitals to show the injuries caused by knife crime. The problem with the fear approach was first pointed out to me by Professors Wesley Perkins and David Craig by what he termed as ‘upping the dosage’. In other words, what scares a young person one day they become immune to the next. Hence you must up the dosage each time. The second problem with scare tactics such as health officials showing significant injuries or dead bodies of knife or gun victims is the ‘that won’t happen to me’ as the effect (the medical injury) is not linked to the pathways that may cause them to end up there.
However, the prevalence of such intervention is common because those implementing them are using a simple logic model often based on their understanding and not the target audience.
The inspirational ex-gang speaker:
I have sat through several conferences with ex-gang members talking about their life of crime, the challenges they faced, the time they spent for their crimes and how they now want to give back. I was once in a secondary school watching one such talk with some year 11 boys (aged 15/16). The speaker was incredibly engaging and charismatic as he talked about the amount of money he was earning, the cars, the lifestyle. He then moved on to what it was like in prison and then needing to do something once released. One of the boys turned to a friend and said ‘I can do that’. What hit me was not only the fact that the gangster life style had been glamourized but also the message being given made the young person think that you can survive the lost years due to crime and do something afterwards. The unintended consequence is that whilst trying to deter young people from crime the risk is we can make this more attractive.
Failure to understand the emotional drivers:
A major issue that has come from research conducted by the London Assembly is that knife crime is no longer driven by solely gang violence but also the ‘fear’ that other young people carry knifes. This perceived social norm may not actually be true in terms of the behaviour but perception is powerful. This is compounded by the hyper-localisation of post-code territorialism means that any young person who is a stranger can be seen as a threat. Yet, professionals, commissioners and community leaders focus resources on catching those with knifes and too little time is spent on why for some young people the most rational option is to carry a knife.
When a young person picks up a knife what does that say about how well society is doing in protecting and supporting our young people?
Picture from http://natcen.ac.uk/our-research/research/responding-to-youth-crime-anti-social-behaviour/