Gang violence and knife crime are caused by young people’s social background factors in association with individual risk factors which result from poverty, deprivation and associated social problems
This report aims to address the question whether gang violence and knife crime among young people are caused by their social background. To answer this question, risk factors believed to be linked to the problem will be evaluated. First, research evidence will be proposed regarding the association between gang involvement and crucial aspects of social background. Then, the influence of individual risk factors and deep social problems of poverty, deprivation, marginalisation and social exclusion will be evaluated to ascertain their impact on the problem of gang violence and knife crime among young people. It will be concluded that while social background risk factors are crucial determinants of the problem, they are often accompanied by individual influences and seem to be caused by the roots of the problem – poverty, deprivation, marginalisation and social exclusion. Potential intervention strategies targeting the problem will be outlined, such as alternative policing measures, social solutions, healthy educational environments and diversionary activities for young people.
Knife crime in the UK
Knife crime can be defined as a simple possession or an actual use of a bladed instrument in a violent incident (Eades, Grimshaw, Silvestri, & Solomon, 2007). During 2008, the British media, the public and the political institutions had to face the problem of increased incidents of knife crime. The media reported that the issue was mostly concentrated in inner city areas, particularly areas in London (Fitch, 2009). In 2007, 26 young people aged 14-19 years were murdered by other young people in London (Fitch, 2009). This contained 17 stabbings, 8 shootings and one fatal assault (Fitch, 2009). In 2008, there were 32 teenage deaths in London, 25 of them stabbings (Fitch, 2009). According to Marfleet (2008, as cited in Squires, 2009), the issue is very serious, considering that 36 young people were stabbed to death in London during 2007 and 2008. However, it seems that currently there are no clear national data available that would evidence the concern about the extent to which knives are carried by teenagers and about rising weapon-involved violence (Squires, 2009). On the other hand, the data on knife possession offences match the data obtained from hospital A&E units (Squires, 2009). The A&E evidence is deemed more reliable than police statistics because victims are notoriously reluctant to report gang-related victimisation to the police (Squires, 2009). Still, there is a lack of useful, reliable, longitudinal research on the extent, nature, cause, frequency and growth of knife carrying, without which, designing and applying intervention strategies to reduce knife carrying will be restricted (Squires, 2009).
Gangs and knives
Fitch (2009) posited that gangs and weapons are intertwined because it is likely that young people who decide to carry knives will experience similar risk factors to those who commit group-involved crimes. Research shows that gang members are significantly more likely than others to carry weapons (Felson, 1986, as cited in Marshall, Webb, & Tilley, 2005). Dodd, Nicholas, Povey, and Walker (2004, as cited in Marshall et al., 2005) detailed that 39 per cent of self-reported gang members reported they had carried a knife in the past year compared to 7 per cent of non-gang members. It was found that more than a quarter of knife-involved murders involved more than one offender (Cohen & Felson, 1979, as cited in Marshall et al., 2005). However, there are limitations in research on gangs, such as there is a lack of understanding of the association between gang membership and the participation of gang members in actual gang activity (Spergel, 1995). This may pose as another restriction in the way of designing treatment solutions.
Risk factors linked to gangs and knife crime
Social background risk factors
This part discusses the main focus of this report – the aspects of social background that may potentially cause young people’s involvement in gang violence and knife crime. Research has suggested that the chances of becoming a gang member are more likely when young people face risk factors from social and environmental areas, that is, the neighbourhood, school, family and peer phenomena (Howell & Egley, 2005).
Neighbourhood risk factors
Gang members tend to come from communities that have existing gangs and high youth crime, therefore, placing young people from these areas at a high risk of joining the gang (Thornberry, Krohn, Lizotte, Smith, & Tobin, 2003). Research showed that gang involvement often results from gang members being chosen from a community of high-risk young people who, once in a gang, become even more antisocial (Gatti, Tremblay, Vitaro, & McDuff, 2005). According to Rizzo (2003), gangs thrive in poor, disadvantaged and socially disorganised neighbourhoods. Hall, Thornberry, & Lizotte (2006, as cited in Alleyne & Wood, 2011) claimed that this may be due to a shortage of protective factors in disadvantaged areas. Therefore, neighbourhood factors cannot completely account for gang involvement above and beyond family, peer, and individual risk factors (Thornberry et al., 2003). Moreover, the economic situation of a particular area seems to be at the root of the problem.
School risk factors
Deprived and overcrowded inner-urban neighbourhoods often breed truancy and high school exclusion (Squires, 2009). This shows that school factors do not fully explain the problem. Indeed, neighbourhood risk factors affect young people’s experience of school and school risk factors are likely to affect their individual decision-making within the community. Moreover, it seems that these risk factors co-occur with the economic situation of a particular neighbourhood. Still, poor quality school performance, low attendance and a lack of commitment in school have been associated with gang involvement (Thornberry et al., 2003). According to Squires (2009), school exclusion was associated with escalation into gang culture and similar phenomena. A survey by National Youth Agency (2006, as cited in Squires, 2009) reported that 47 per cent of excluded students had carried a penknife. Young people with limited or no educational achievements, or excluded from school, still aspire to be part of mainstream consumer culture. They engage with illegal local economy as a source of status, opportunity, excitement and companionship (Squires, 2009).
Family risk factors
Young people facing deprivation and marginalisation often experience difficult family relations and a lack of family guidance and support which, in turn, may influence young people’s decision to become involved in gang violence (Squires, 2009). This suggests that family factors cannot explain the issue to the fullest and poverty seems to be at the centre of the problem. Still, limited parental influence (Lahey, Gordon, Loeber, Stouthamer-Loeber, & Farrington, 1999) has been identified to place young people at a higher risk of getting involved with gangs. A shortage of parental management results in young people’s lack of opportunities to rely on pro-social bonds; instead they are influenced by neighbourhoods and peers (Thornberry et al., 2003). Again, the influence of peers and neighbourhoods is undeniable. Also, research indicates that young people and children who commit group-bases offences have experienced neglect and abuse (Young et al., 2007, as cited in Alleyne & Wood, 2011). For example, if violence is common at home, it becomes the norm for young people experiencing it and the likelihood that they will engage in the same behaviour increases (Fitch, 2009).
Peer risk factors
According to Squires (2009), the peer group context reflects a key factor in youth crime. The social setting for the criminal behaviour of young people is represented by the presence of similarly delinquent peers as witnesses and collaborators (Goldstein, 2002). Marfleet (2008, as cited in Squires, 2009) suggested that knife carrying by some young people who are perceived as a threat by others, impacts on the likelihood that others will carry knives in response. Pitts (2008, as cited in Squires, 2009) asserted that young people involved in gangs possess a heightened sensitivity to threat and an incessant readiness for action. These skills may lead to further isolation of gang members and young people socialising in the streets from the protections of the social and cultural mainstream (Squires, 2009). Again, peer risk factors cannot explain the problem fully; the lack of family support and the influence of antisocial neighbourhoods along with deprived social background lead to young people seeking out other peers for company and understanding (Squires, 2009).
Individual risk factors
While the influence from young people’s social background is unmistakable, it is important to acknowledge the role of individual risk factors. For instance, Gatti et al. (2005) revealed that high levels of antisocial behaviour prior to joining a gang are related to the length of time an individual remains in a gang. Young people who were not antisocial prior to joining a gang are more likely to be members only temporarily (Gatti et al., 2005). Other individual risk factors are alcohol and drug abuse. Those young people who consume alcohol at least once a month are responsible for a considerable amount of crime (Matthews, Brasnett, & Smith, 2006, as cited in Fitch, 2009). Also, young people who abuse drugs are five times as likely to offend (Flood-Page, Campbell, Harrington, & Miller, 2000). Moreover, McKeganey and Norrie (2000) found a strong association between drug use and the possession of weapons. However, it may be difficult to separate the reasons behind drug and alcohol use from the complex problems of economic deprivation and social exclusion (Eades, 2006, as cited in Fitch, 2009). This was evidenced by Utting, Montiero, and Ghate (2006, as cited in Fitch, 2009) who argued that drugs tend to be more easily accessible in deprived, urban neighbourhoods because of the presence of adult criminal structures.
Poverty, deprivation, marginalisation, social exclusion
The above debate clearly demonstrated the crucial influences of poverty, marginalisation and social exclusion. Stephen (2009) proposed that gangs, knife crime, knife carrying and the associated violence are just symptoms of a broad social problem arising from the current societal issues. Deprivation that young people experience is a result of changes in class relationships due to globalisation. This had influenced the rise of knife crime and gang violence amongst young people in some inner city areas in the UK (Squires, 2009). Indeed, weapon-related crime is mostly present in the poorest and most deprived regions where violence is indicative of deeper problems (Squires, Silvestri, Grimshaw, & Solomon, 2008). Therefore, while the influences of social background and individual factors are evident, they may be just symptoms of deep structural issues, such as poverty, marginalisation and exclusion. One of the most harmful side effects of poverty is misrecognition (Cook, 2006, as cited in Stephen, 2009), which leads to social exclusion of young people which is associated with engagement in crime (Squires, 2009). In turn, social exclusion makes young people susceptible to risk factors, such as living in neighbourhoods with high crime rates and underachieving at school. Indeed, Squires (2009) found that weapon carrying is especially concentrated amongst excluded young people and children. Gangs provide them with feelings of belonging and an expression of identity that they lack (White & Cunneen, 2006).
Overall, it seems that gang involvement results from the combination of influences from social background dynamics and individual risk factors. This notion was supported by Alleyne and Wood (2011) who found that the presence of community gangs predicted poor parental management, and poor parental management predicted affiliation with gangs when mediated by increased levels of individual antisocial behaviour. Moreover, it has been shown that all of these factors are caused by the potential roots of the problem – poverty, deprivation, marginalisation and social exclusion. Young people’s socio-economic status is associated with the area they live in, their school performance, their family attachments and relationships and the people they most associate with (Howell & Egley, 2005).
The following recommendations emerge from the above issues and aim to reduce the roots of the problem (poverty, deprivation, marginalisation, social exclusion) and the social and individual risk factors closely linked with knife crime and gang violence.
Intervention strategies should target both gangs and knife crime. This is because attempts to fight knife crime are interconnected with reduction of gang involvement, because a reduction in gang activity may consequently decrease fear of being victimised amongst those who carry knives for protection (McVie, 2010).
A shift in policing focus
I recommend that to account for the aforementioned risk factors linked with gang violence and knife crime, thorough changes in the policing focus are needed. Criminal justice efforts to control the situation have revolved around knife amnesties, focused police operations and similar reactive measures. According to Eades et al. (2007), these efforts showed limited effectiveness. The initiatives by the government resulted in enhanced stop and search measures, which led to the detention of 5000 weapons (Walsh, 2011). While this may seem high, it accounts for a success rate of just 2 per cent (Walsh, 2011).
Klockars (2005, as cited in Walsh, 2011) asserted that such measures by the police cannot solve the problem because it is not in their power to change the issues that influence the problem, such as poverty, exclusion, limited job opportunities and the social and economic resources to satisfy one’s needs. Moreover, these criminal justice measures are counter-productive (Walsh, 2011). Stop and search may worsen the situation by creating, marginalisation and victimisation of young people. It may lead to feelings of mistrust and resentment among young people towards the police (Walsh, 2011). Instead, the focus should be placed on the establishment of police-community and police-youth cooperation that involve community partners in public safety programmes; police and youth programmes; trust building; and a police presence in schools aimed to build a rapport with and provide mentoring and guidance for young people at risk (Walsh, 2011). All these have been found to have an effect on youth violence (Walsh, 2011). The police should focus on alleviating the fear factor and mistrust that young people face and that motivates them to carry knives. These collaborations could also result in educational programmes led by police officers along with school staff to raise awareness about the risks and consequences of violence and to propose alternatives available to them (Walsh, 2011).
To address the root of the problem
I recommend that to account for the root of the problem social and not criminal justice solutions are needed (Stephen, 2009). Walsh (2011) asserted that the best solution lies in creating an approach that targets the causes of youth violence, instead of a reactive and punitive enforcement approach. Stephen (2009) argued that to prevent the marginalisation and discrimination resulting from living in poverty, structural inequalities must be addressed. Interventions involving socioeconomic improvement and enhanced opportunities for young people would be especially helpful (McVie, 2010). Intervention strategies should be concentrated within profoundly socially disadvantaged demographic groups.
Include Youth’s Manifesto for Youth Justice In Northern Ireland (2008, as cited in Stephen, 2009) put an emphasis on a positive rights-based agenda and stressed the importance of early intervention and family support, making sure that young people have access to public leisure services, improving children’s education and health services and improving youth justice. However, Adnett and Slack (2007) asserted that current educational policy does not take into consideration research evidence that revealed that participation initiatives have not provided suitably for poorer children. Also, there are children which due to their social immobility will not be able to attend higher education (Cabinet Office, 2008, as cited in Stephen, 2009). This further marginalises those living in poverty.
Pitts (2007, as cited in Stephen, 2009) recommended a range of solutions rooted in multiagency approaches within policy initiatives which have made positive starting points to deal with the causes of the problem (e.g., Every Child Matters, Social Inclusion and Social Cohesion Policies). These solutions included supportive interventions with young people and families, opportunities for employment, education and training, and supporting greater confidence and trust in the police. Kintrea, Bannister, Pickering, Reid, and Suzuki (2008) argued that these recommendations may be promising as they target the structural issues that epitomise the roots of knife crime. According to the Manifesto, however, dealing with the effects of class-related discrimination of marginalised young people is challenging (Stephen, 2009). For instance, due to the recession, poverty reduction is not an easy task. If child poverty is to be ended by 2020, there remains a lot to be solved for the millions of children living in poverty (Hirsch, 2008, as cited in Stephen, 2009).
Developing healthy school environments
I recommend that to counteract the negative influences from social background, individual stimuli and the roots of the problem, healthy school environments are needed. Brookman and Maguire (2003, as cited in Walsh, 2011) proposed that schools and educational programmes serve as the most effective first defence against knife crime and knife carrying. Healthy school environments may counteract adverse circumstances in young people’s lives. Young people tend to spend a third of their day in school, therefore, it is a place where they adopt behaviours and form social attachments. This opportunity does not exist when pupils are excluded or involved in programmes that are not in line with their individual needs or circumstances (Walsh, 2011). Therefore, a priority should be placed on developing school environments that address the diversity that is present in the society. First of all, young people must be provided with a sense of social inclusion and with tools that enable them to succeed (Walsh, 2011). According to Lemos (2004), education opens doors and eliminates social barriers that may play a role in criminal activity. For this reason, it is crucial to keep children in school, especially in PRUs, to counteract their future involvement with criminal activity. Similarly, educational programmes are also important. For instance, the Be Safe Project – which is involved with schools and focuses on phenomena such as self-defence; the law; and implications of knife use – has been revealed to significantly diminish offending and weapon carrying among those who have been part of the project (Walsh, 2011).
Investment in diversionary activities
I recommend that it is crucial to provide young people with access to structured activities and youth facilities that would serve as a safe alternative to spending time in groups on the streets (Fitch, 2009). It may prevent young people from being influenced by antisocial neighbourhoods, communities and peers. Young people must be empowered so they are more likely to overcome adverse family relations. Also, it may prevent them from a lifestyle of drugs and alcohol. Such activities are believed to reduce boredom and increase self-esteem of young people (Walsh, 2011). Diversionary activities, such as the arts and sports, also play a role of social programmes, which have been found to have a positive impact on anti-social and aggressive behaviour, weapon carrying and a sense of exclusion (Walsh, 2011). Morgan and Newburn (2007, as cited in Walsh, 2011) revealed that young people engaged with Youth Inclusion Panels (YIPs) and Youth Inclusion and Support Panels (YISPs), which provide such activities, exhibited fewer arrests and a reduction in the seriousness of offenses. According to Laureus (2009, as cited in Walsh, 2011), sports activities promote the development of discipline and are ideal for striving to achieve a goal; learning to cooperate with and understand peers; learning to understand notions of justice and fairness; and learning to cope with failure and setbacks. Such activities may serve as positive alternatives to gang membership. They offer alternative means of cultural capital; positive role models (i.e., sports figures) and mentors (i.e., surrogate adults); peers to promote social inclusion; the formation of attachments which promote integration in the community and employment opportunities (Walsh, 2011).
The above issues indicated that young people become involved in gang violence due to the interconnection of social background issues and individual risk factors. These factors seem to be caused by disadvantage, poverty and exclusion that these young people tend to face. The problem starts with living in poverty and problematic neighbourhoods which lead to difficult family relations, school exclusion, an interaction with delinquent peers and consequently young people’s individual decision to join delinquent groups and engage in crime. Recommendations for intervention strategies to cope with the problem were proposed. For example, it was proposed that the focus of policing should move from the punitive and reactive approach to more social and community-based efforts. Also, it was proposed that to deal with the root of the problem – poverty, deprivation, marginalisation and social exclusion – social structural solutions must be used. To reduce the social and individual risk factors, intervention solutions such as a development of healthy school environments, and investment in diversionary activities, such as sports and arts, were suggested.
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