The strife and crimes of youth
ALL over the developed world, crime rose at a great rate for 30 years or more after the Second World War. Although it levelled off or fell in most countries sometime after 1980, crime everywhere is much higher now than at any time in the past 150 years.
Most offences are theft and damage to property, although the rise in violent crimes such as robbery has been particularly striking.
Most are committed by teenagers and young adults, with the peak coming at the age of 18. In other words, crime is a youth problem that has got much worse over the past 50 years.
A higher crime rate is one of the ills of prosperity, which creates more things to steal and brings more young people into clubs and pubs in city centres . But higher crime is also a sign of increasing stresses on young people as they grow into adulthood.
With the huge increase in the number of young people going on to higher education or training, the in-between period after childhood and before adulthood has lengthened.
At a time of their lives when their grandparents were going out to work with people of all ages, young people now spend most of their time among people of their own age. That change was connected with the birth of the teenager in the 1950s, a race apart, with its own dress, language, music, and ready-made rebellion.
Being young, and growing into an adult, have become more difficult in a number of ways. Because they have more information than before, through television, education, and travel, young people have wider horizons, but inevitably higher expectations often cannot be fulfilled.
Young people remain financially dependent longer, but it becomes more and more important to show who you are by what you buy and wear.
Instead of accepting moral commands from on high, there is increasing emphasis on individual decisions, with people having to make personal choices at an earlier and earlier age - choices which may have life and death consequences.
Drugs are widely available, as they were not a generation ago. Sex at an early age thrusts responsibility for AIDS and early pregnancy on young people, and means that they may have to cope with the breakdown of a love relationship. Just as these changes make it harder to be young, they also make it harder to be a parent .
Because crime is one of a number of youth problems that have got worse, a team of researchers at Edinburgh University launched a study in the late 1990s that monitors the growth and development of a whole generation of young people.
We decided to make Edinburgh the testbed for our study because, although the city is fairly small by international standards, "all human life is there" - a parliament, a government, a legal and administrative hub, a flourishing tourist trade, a financial services industry, and also squalor, deprivation, and a substantial illicit drug markets, especially in outlying council housing estates.
THE study is tracking nearly all the young people who are now aged about 15 in the city of Edinburgh. It covers 4380 in total.
We collect information once a year from questionnaires filled in by the young people themselves, and from records kept by various agencies such as the children’s hearings and the social work department. Also, we recently carried out a survey of the parents of young people in the study.
Studies in several countries have shown crime and delinquency are common among teenagers and young adults. It is usual, not unusual, for a young man to have committed a criminal offence. Both in England and in Scotland, about one in three of young men have a criminal conviction by the age of 30 (not counting minor assaults and minor motoring offences).
Studies like ours show many more have committed offences without being caught. But most young people stop offending as they mature into adults, without getting deeply involved in a serious criminal career.
In the second year of the study, when the children were 13 years old, they were asked about 15 kinds of crime and delinquency, from the trivial (such as fare dodging) to the serious (such as housebreaking or joyriding). The questions covered damage to property, theft, and fire-setting, as well as violent acts such as robbery and assault. The majority of young people (83 per cent) had engaged in one or more of these acts in the previous 12 months.
However, when we count up the individual incidents of delinquency, we find there is a hard core of youngsters who were involved in 21 or more incidents over the 12-month period. They amount to 13 per cent of young people, but were responsible for more than half of the delinquencies.
The more serious forms of delinquency were the least common, but 16 per cent had carried a weapon for protection or for possible use in fight (often a penknife or small kitchen knife); 14 per cent had started a fire (rarely with serious consequences); five per cent had ridden in a stolen vehicle; three per cent had broken into a house, and two per cent into a car.
These findings show delinquency is so common in the teenage years that it is normal behaviour. As the study progresses, we aim to find out why some "normal" teenage delinquents will turn out to have long-term, serious criminal careers .
The early findings show that in the early teens, young people are likely to be victims of crime as well as offenders. The experiences of being a crime victim and an offender are closely linked. This is partly because young people commit some kinds of crime on each other - the best examples are assault and robbery. In addition, the experience of being a victim may turn "normal" delinquents into serious career criminals.
What can be done to reduce the number of young people who will adopt a life of crime ? To get convincing answers, it will be necessary to track this group of young people until they hit their late 20s.
In the early teens, it seems relationships with parents have a very important influence. The most successful parents supervise and monitor their children closely, but are not often in conflict with them. Strong supervision and low conflict go together and it is unsupervised children who argue most with their parents. Successful parents also let their children make some decisions for themselves.
So parents succeed when they negotiate limits but insist behaviour stays within the limits . We aim to find out if achieving control through negotiation also works for the children’s hearings, the police and the courts.
David J Smith is professor of criminology at Edinburgh University and head of the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions in Crime.
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