Boris Johnson’s urgent review around sentencing for dangerous offenders including young people and knife crime has all the ingredients reminiscent of Thatcher’s get-tough-on-crime policies of the Seventies. Yet again, we see the same old right-wing just-desserts rhetoric dusted down in an exercise more akin to win votes for a rumoured general election than any attempt at stemming street violence. Like Margaret Thatcher’s promise to fight crime by giving young offenders a “short, sharp shock”, Johnson has pledged a determination to fight rising levels of knife crime amid the impression of an increasing “culture of insolence” among “thugs” who believed they can act with complete impunity. The answer, the new PM claims, lies not in creating better, inclusive environments with opportunity, but in hard, zero-tolerance policing and custodial sentencing.
As a working-class academic whose research has centred on young disenfranchised people and gang crime and as a lifelong resident of a former council estate in Knowsley, Merseyside, one of the most socially excluded and poverty-stricken areas in the UK and a place seldom recognised, let alone visited, by any of the Tory hierarchy, I’ve had the unique opportunity to see over both sides of the proverbial fence.
I have ingested most of the theories and the recent government reports about why young people turn to gangs and, more recently, knife crime. I know, through research and more importantly through 48 years of longstanding personal experience, that places such as Knowsley very quickly become hotspots for violent crime – not by choice, but because there is a lack of choice.
Interestingly, 90 per cent of those young people in the Seventies who were recipients of the harsh, and in many cases unnecessarily brutal, short sharp shock were unemployed at the time of their offences. Many found a strange kind of solace inside, away from the heavily marginalised and banal place and space they occupied on the outside.
The recent proposals around sentencing and increased number of stop and searches to tackle knife crime, while countering the present number of young people possessing knives, a symptom of crime, do very little to address or even understand the root causes of why young people feel it necessary to carry knives or join knife-wielding street gangs.
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My research carried out in 2015 involved interviewing 44 young people (aged 18 to 25) on Merseyside and consisted of both those who chose to become gang members and those who chose to abstain. Although these young people were from comparable excluded areas and shared similar backgrounds, I found crucial differences which meant some were at greater risk of joining gangs.
The most significant finding in terms of those young people who decided to join gangs and become embroiled in violence was doing so because they very rarely had a chance to go beyond their neighbourhood, which in all of the cases was cut off from any opportunities to make positive connections. This had resulted in values becoming bound around the dominant activity of joining deviant street groups and the violence that for some, can soon become a way of life.
In contrast, those who remained free of street gang influence and criminal involvement were either diverted away by street-savvy parents or, through their own volition, began to bridge beyond their residential setting to find opportunities and make new pro-social acquaintances in other areas.
For far too long, the British public has heard the same old far-right realism embedded within diverted designed discourse surrounding youth crime. It’s the bad family or young people disengaged from education or skills, when in fact it’s lack of opportunities, non-existent social mobility and high levels of inequality that are the real causes of what we’re seeing on our streets.
Add to this the recent cuts in youth services, a product of austerity that in the plain light of day affected the few and not the many, certainly not those in Westminster and you have a veritable cauldron of frustration.
Speaking recently on the issue of extremism, Britain’s most senior counter-terrorism officer, the assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Neil Basu, was quick to highlight that 80 per cent of those wishing to launch attacks on UK cities were British-born or raised, which strongly indicated social issues were among the root causes. Calling for sociologists and criminologists to take the lead and help police, Commissioner Basu claimed that social inclusion was the key.
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Writing as one of those criminologists happy to answer his call, I support and echo Basu’s observations, that creation of greater inclusion and social mobility can go a long way to reducing not only extremism but also mindless street violence involving young people. In one hustings interview, Johnson was quick to point the finger at knife crime being rooted in gangs and county lines, but what he and past Tory prime ministers have steered away from is discussing why gangs and county lines have emerged in the first place. They do so because young people have limited options to develop true identities for themselves.
Summing up the situation better than any political analyst or social commentator, one of my research participants involved in gangs and violence commented: “I had no choice, it was on my doorstep all around me… There was nothing else.”
Dr Robert Hesketh has taught criminology and forensic psychology at the University of Chester, Edge Hill University and Liverpool John Moores University