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Social Construction Of Youth Crime

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This essay will analyse and evaluate the historical and contemporary contextualisation of the development of the social construction of youth and evaluate the states response to the youth offending. It will appraise the process of distinguishing childhood from little adults to a life stage synonymous with vulnerability and in need of protection. It will further evaluate how differences in social class led to an increased visibility of children during the industrial revolution leading to the creation of tension and conflicting views within the adult population. The introduction of the category of youth further created a perceived problem of youth crime and subsequent legislative responses for young offenders. It will further consider the role of the media specifically during the 1990’s and their contribution to the populist punitive policies introduced under the New Labour Government. It will assess the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and the Anti-Social Behaviour Orders that were implemented as a measure to deal with behaviour considered to cause alarm or distress, and the consequences for those individuals who breached the imposed order.

Within contemporary Western society the concept of childhood invokes visions of vulnerability, innocence, love and nurture (Munchie, 1999). However French Historian, Phillipe Ariès (1914-1984) determined the process of differentiating childhood as a separate life stage to adulthood began during the seventeenth century (Clarke, 2003). Ariès conclusions were driven in part through research of various medieval arts, writings and clothing, the abandonment of babies and a cultural belief of a male child being of a greater value than a female. Although there are many who agree with the evidence from which Ariès made his conclusion, others have sought to criticise his suppositions. Linda Pollock (1959) in Clarke (2003) argued her examination of diaries, autobiographies and various first-hand accounts between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries suggested more similarities between historical and contemporary families than Ariès would acknowledge (Clarke, 2003). Whilst drawing on studies investigating medieval family life within Western Europe during the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, Shulamith Shahar (1983) questioned Ariès findings arguing rather than medieval society thinking of children as ‘little adults’, childhood was separated into distinct developmental stages similar to those within contemporary society (Shahar, 1992).

During the industrial revolution the bourgeoisie and social reformers conception of childhood evolved to distinguish the life stage as separate to that of adulthood and was considered to be one of vulnerability and requiring protection, whilst in contrast childhood within the working classes were regarded as a commodity and routinely exploited (Clarke, 2003). The introduction of The Factory Act 1833 restricted the employment of children under the age of nine years, and further limited the total number of working hours permitted for those aged nine to eighteen years (Parliament, 2019). Consequently working class children were either left to their own devices whilst their parents worked, or alternatively to compensate for lost earnings, forced onto the streets to sell goods. With no compulsory education system, children were increasingly visible on the streets. Distinct from adults in their appearance and behaviour a degree of apprehension ensued within the adult population leading to conflicting views of an innocent child and the threatening adolescent. The dichotomy led to the construction of a new category within society, a developmental period older than a child yet younger than an adult, a period synonymous with chaotic behaviour, physical, hormonal and psychological changes, a period known as youth (Case, 2016).

Official crime statistics developed within the same period as the emergence of a social construction of youth. Crime, previously measured against the type of offence, introduced a measurement category to include the age of offender. Such measurements led to the categorisation of crime by a specific developmental stage, and therefore introducing youth crime to be perceived as problematic. The supposed problem led to governmental responses including legislation and systems designed to respond to the problem of youth crime (Case, 2016). Such responses included a piece of legislation that for the first time distinguished the adult and juvenile offender, The Juvenile Offenders Act 1847. The act imposed young people under the age of fourteen for lesser offences to be tried in a Magistrate’s court. 1823 witnessed both the introduction of a juvenile only prison ship and the first juvenile only custodial establishment, Parkhurst. However, children were still routinely incarcerated within adult establishments until the passing of the Reformatory Schools Act 1899. The abolishment of custody for children under the age of fourteen was introduced within The Children Act of 1908, which also legislated for a separate juvenile court to deal with issues of both crime and needs of children who committed crime (Munchie, 1999).

Approaches to youth justice historically have oscillated between welfare attitudes which places the focus towards the needs of an individual, rather than the punishment for the offences committed and punitive methods which seek to hold an individual accountable irrespective of age or individual circumstance, pursues a punishment that fits the crime (Case, 2018). The general election of 1979 witnessed the Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher form a government with a manifesto that placed an emphasis on punitive law and order, introducing policies arguably influenced by the criminological theory of right realism. Right realism determines crime occurs following a calculated appraisal of the harms versus the benefits leading to a logical individual choice (Maguire, et al., 2002). Punitive policies ultimately prove popular with the electorate and subsequently each general election since 1979 has witnessed contending political party’s placing specific attention to the problem of crime and youth crime within their manifesto. Indeed the lead up to the general election of 1997 witnessed both the Conservative’s and New Labour’s party continued punitive rhetoric (Newburn, 2013)

The summer of 1991 witnessed a series of urban disturbances, primarily involving young white men residing in areas suffering from social-economic deprivation (Moran, 2005). The disturbances allowed for the concerns surrounding the activities of young people to be amplified and distorted by the media (Tunstall, 1997). The culmination of public concern regarding youth offending arose following the murder of James Bulger in February 1993 by two ten year old boys. Although child on child murders are incredibly rare, media representations fuelled a moral panic (Munchie, 1999). Stan Cohen (1918 – 2014) theorises a moral panic as a way in which the media utilise dramatic reporting styles and sensationalist headlines to distort and exaggerate a sequence of events (Cohen, 1972). Consequently rather than being considered innocent and requiring protection, attitudes towards children indurated leading to a notion of populist punitiveness. Perceptions arguably archaic and perhaps more fitting to the period encompassing pre industrial society rather than belonging in a progressive and contemporary society (Case, 2018).

The 1996 Audit commission report ‘Misspent Youth’ concluded interventions within the youth justice system under the Conservative administration was despite the vast sum of invested capital were largely futile (Gough & Pycroft, 2019). Youth justice policies under the Conservative Government focused on a philosophy of diversion, decriminalisation and decarceration seeking to divert children away from the criminal justice system. Arguably the policies could be seen to be a contradiction of a manifesto that placed a heavy emphasis onto law and order (Yates, 2003). Furthermore what could be construed as a more left wing and progressive approach to youth justice, could be argued to be influenced by the neo-liberalist approach of reducing public expenditure.

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Following the Misspent Youth’ report, and during their period of opposition, New Labour published details outlining their strategies to reform the youth justice system in their pre-election consultation document titled Tackling Youth Crime, Reforming Youth Justice. The document reaffirmed prioritising the modernisation of youth justice and proposed reforms including what became a key element within New Labour’s 1997 manifesto, and heavily influenced following the amplified response to Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, the abolition of doli incapax (Newburn, 2003). Doli incapax, the presumption in law, requiring a court to satisfy offences commissioned were rather than being simply naughty, known to be seriously wrong. Such presumption afforded an element of protection to children under the age of fourteen (Joyce, 2013).

The general election of 1997 witnessed New Labour led by Tony Blair to form a government with the pledge “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” (The Home Office, 2010). Consolidating the Misspent Youth report, New Labour commissioned the 1997 White Paper ‘No More Excuses’, focusing on both the responsibilisation of young people who offend and the prevention of those young people from committing further offences (Case, et al., 2017). No More Excuses and five further consultation documents were legislated into The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 (CDA). As detailed within the manifesto the CDA duly abolished the presumption of doli incapax leading to children over the age of ten years considered like adults, legally responsible for their actions, and introduced provisions for the prevention of crime and disorder (Home Office, 1998). Containing an amalgamation of preventative, ameliorative and punitive elements, the CDA supplanted a philosophy of diversion decriminalisation and decarceration to one of, managerialism, responsibilisation and intervention. The philosophy implements the management of efficient and measureable performance targets, diverting responses away from a discourse of social inequality and disadvantage towards one that encompassed individual responsibility whilst justifying the early intervention into the lives of young people (Joyce, 2013).

Aspects of New Labour policies are influenced by the criminological theory of left realism. Left realism acknowledges concerns such as poor housing, socio economic deprivation, marginalisation and inequality as key factors that can contribute to the causation of crime (Newburn, 2013). New Labour established the Social Exclusion Unit with the remit to provide joined up solutions for joined up problems (Blair, 1997), however in contrast elements of New Labour policies compare with the punitive elements of conservative ideology, signalling a political move from the traditional centre left historically associated with Labour, to a more traditional Conservative centre right (Newburn, 2003). Through the adoption of a ‘what works’ paradigm the act introduced a plethora of orders directed towards young offenders including the Anti-Social Behaviour Order (Newburn, 2003).

Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBO) were introduced under Section 1 of the CDA designed with the objective to combat behaviour “that caused or was likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to one or more persons not of the same household as himself” (Home Office, 1998). ASBOs could be applied for by Local Authorities or the Police under civil procedures and be imposed on any person above the age of ten years. Issued by a Magistrate’s court the orders required only the civil burden of proof, the balance of probabilities (Quinn & Elliot, 2013). Individual support orders were introduced as a welfarist bolt on to ASBOs under the 2003 Criminal Justice Act. The support orders imposed obligations to those aged between ten and seventeen to tackle the causes of their behaviour (Joyce, 2013).

ASBOs arguably were heavily influenced by Wilson and Kelling’s (1982) Broken Windows Thesis which suggests problems ignored by a community alters the perception by people that an area is uncared for and thus attracts further problems (Kelling & Wilson, 1982). New Labour affirmed the orders were designed to construct strong and cohesive communities by providing methods to addressing the harm and distress felt by innocent and law abiding citizens. Critically however, anti-social behaviour itself both highly subjective and lacking in definition, the orders provided a means whereby the intolerant were able to sanction conduct of which they objected (Joyce, 2013). Furthermore and controversially, non-compliance of an ABSO resulted in criminal proceedings with breaches triable in either the Magistrates or Crown Court carrying a sentence of between two and five years (Newburn, 2003).

The management of anti-social behaviour was further extended under the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 extending the provisions for Parenting Orders to include not just young people who had offended, but also those who had either truanted of been excluded from education. Ultimately the expansion of the orders drew more young people into a system of formal interventions even though no criminal offence had been committed (Haines & Case, 2015). 2005 witnessed a spike of both ASBOs issued and consequently breached ( Home Office, 2016), such could be considered a consequence of the introduction of Comprehensive Performance Assessments, presented to deliver a quantifiable measurement evidencing reductions in anti-social behaviour (Joyce, 2013).

Critically ASBOs could be regarded as an unjustified extension of the power of the state focused towards marginalised groups on the basis of existing social problems historically associated with growing up, that had been to a great extent artificially exaggerated. The introduction of the ABSO arguably resulted in widening the net of social control (Joyce, 2013). Stan Cohen (1942 – 2013) theorises net widening as a concept whereby due to the result of administrative changes, an increased quantity of individuals enter the criminal justice system. The increase in supplementary orders invariably resulted in individuals who previously would have slipped through the system being ensnared for extended periods, he describes as thinning the mesh, whilst the breach of an ASBO resulted in the criminalisation for a civil order thus resulted in a blurring of the boundaries (Cohen, 1985).

In conclusion the concept of childhood as contemporary society understands began during the industrial revolution. The bourgeoisie and social reformers A government that purports to have an interest in tackling social exclusion at the same time promotes legislative measures destined to create a whole new breed of outcast.

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Social Construction Of Youth Crime. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 28, 2023, from
“Social Construction Of Youth Crime.” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022,
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