If current media representations hold true, British society has reached an all time low stage where we are threatened by gangs of unruly teenagers on every street corner, youths, dressed in the uniform which spreads terror into older generations: hooded top, tracksuit bottoms, trainers. These gangs of youths seem to be a new phenomenon, openly flouting authority, and seemingly responsible for all local anti-social and criminal behaviour. The Conservative Party (opposition) think we should give them a hug, whilst the Labour Party (government) consider that a slightly more authoritarian approach is called for, with their introduction of anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs), and their belief in a short sharp shock and a custodial sentence (Muncie 2004). As we shall later see both of these approaches have been tried before, with varied impact on the behaviour of the young people involved, and on public and media perception.
A quick search on the Home Office website under the heading youth crime brings up two seemingly contradictory statements.
1. Youth offending has remained at a constant level since 2001, and declined between 1995 and 2001.
2. Three quarters of respondents to a public opinion poll believe that youth offending is on the increase (Wilson et al, 2006).
The home office suggests that this inconsistency is a result of public fear of youth crime being disproportionate to actual youth crime. Whilst they state that reducing this fear is an aim they do not provide much by way of concrete explanation of how this could be done, and there efforts are focused on prevention of youth crime, rehabilitation through sentencing and provision of support by youth offending teams.
This paper sets out to explore the assertion that youth offending is at an all time high rate from a United Kingdom perspective, looking at the emergence of hooligans, juvenile delinquents, teds, hoodies and their media demonisation. By exploring public opinion of these, at times oppressed, groups of people, and through using sociological theory of ‘otherness,’ ‘folk devils’ and ‘moral panics’ this paper hopes to demonstrate that (i) older generations have a tendency to believe that youth behaviour is worse than it was 20 years ago, (ii) crime statistics are rarely comparable between, and often not comparable within governments. A brief look at the effect of different legislation and models for reducing youth offending will also be used to put a context on why society fears youth crime.
In order to set some context to the following a few definitions will now be given. Youth as a social construct. Throughout sociological discourse many labels and concepts can be seen to have biological and social constructions, for example gender studies use the terms sex (biological) and gender (social), in race studies the terms are race and ethnicity and in disability studies the concepts of disablement as a social construct and impairment as a biological situation are used (e.g. Oliver 1983). This is a positive approach which encompasses individual differences and looks at societies oppressive obstacles and barriers and considers how these can be broken down. When looking at age there are clear biological factors, and for the purpose of this paper youth will be considered a social construct of the teenage years, with clear barriers to inclusion (too young for pubs and clubs, too old for children’s play areas) and stigma (hence the public assumption that youth crime is rising?).
The terms ‘moral panic’ and ‘folk devils’ will also be used within this paper. Moral panic is a term coined by Cohen in the 1970s to describe the reaction of a group within society to a group or culture ‘outside’ of society based on a misconception that this subculture is deviant and a threat to ‘normality.’ (Cohen, 2002) Cohen noted that an increase in media coverage of the subcultural group would lead to an exaggerated perception of a groups wrong-doings. This is known as the deviancy amplification spiral.
Stanley Cohen also utilised the term folk devil. Related to scapegoat folk devils are ‘deviants’ or ‘outside of society.’ Folk devils have always been a factor of society, and have clear correlates in the workings of psychiatrist Thomas Szasz (1997) who looked at the transfer of fear from 15th century witch hunts to people with mental health problems. Thus through these definitions we can see a pattern that society perceives difference as scary, it deals with this through labeling different groups, through the creation of oppressing barriers, through demonising different behaviour and through belief that the deviant behaviour of other groups and cultures is not only worse than it is, but also more common than it is. It may not be possible to separate the effect of moral panic and the effect of social constructions from the actual amount of crime committed by young people, and especially teenagers, however this paper will attempt to at least identify trends.
One obvious method of ascertaining whether youth offending behaviour is truly at an all time high, is to examine previous crime levels. Use of crime statistics however, is problematic. Variables which show crime statistics include: arrest and conviction rates, changing size of the police force, legislative changes, definitions of youth and young, definitions of known crime (Newburn, 2002; Brown, 1998). For example, in the early 1800s crime was not recorded until it was solved, police were known to avoid large gang fights for fear of being outnumbered, and much property theft was simply recorded as ‘lost property’ (so accident, not crime) (Pearson, 1992). In 1998 the system of cautioning was abolished and many police officers used their discretion and gave out informal warnings to young people. These warnings were not recorded officially, with the result that crime figures fell dramatically (Wilson et al., 2006). Politicians are driven by public opinion (well, this is a democracy) and public opinion is largely driven by the media. New Labour are now known for giving the public sector targets to work towards. Sadly, what this could mean in practice is that a target for an increase in arrests of young people is likely to lead to such an increase regardless of whether actual crime levels are changing (Kirton, 2005). Such inconsistencies, and the unknown levels of unrecorded, hidden, crime result in crime statistics being largely unusable in any comparative study.
Neither crime statistics, nor public opinion are necessarily a reliable means of assessing the assertion that youth crime is at an all time high. So in order to see whether the belief that things were better 20 years ago, or that England has had it’s hey day of little or no crime and disorder it is necessary to go back through other accounts. Here the media is largely used, and as such is only an exaggerated reflection of what might have been (Pearson, 1992). Using the concepts of moral panic and folk devils and drawing largely on the work of Pearson (1992) this paper will now turn back through history to see whether todays folk devils the hoodies are really a new concept, and to see whether surrounding media attention and ensuing moral panic are a new phenomenon in teenage criminology.
Pearson (1992) argues that despite contemporary belief that Victorian Britain was a civilised place of high moral standards, and despite popular belief that the social construction of youth as ‘other’ occurred in the affluent, optimistic times following the second world war, there is documentary evidence that the media have been creating folk devils from street gangs, and inciting moral fear and panic since at least the industrial revolution.
The label hooligan seems to have been used initially by groups of young males, to describe themselves during the early 1890s. By the end of the decade it was being used by the media as a derogatory label for groups of young people committing street crime. This was a novel label for an existing concept, and it was not the first time that groups of young people had been labelled in this manner. Groups of young people were described variously as ‘roughs’ and ‘street arabs.’ Hooligans were considered by the media to be un-British and outside of society. They wore a uniform including bell-bottom trousers, scarves instead of ties and caps covering their eyes, instead of hats (Pearson, 1992). The comparisons with the gangs of young people who are today known as hoodies are obvious. Indeed their behaviour was described thus “swearing at passers-by, spitting on them and sometimes assaulting or robbing them” (p83).Taking the basics of social construction theory we can see how groups of young men in the 1800s were labelled and became outside of society, this label was used by the media, and the combination of the label and the description of the behaviour led to moral panic in society, who then would have assumed that the behaviour was more frequent and worse than it was, and a cycle was then in place of fear of the new hooligan folk devils. Evidence for moral panic is described by Pearson (1992) as local ‘normal’ society burnt effigies of hooligans on bonfire night (evidence of a deviancy amplification spiral I suspect).
So, clearly moral panic was raised, but were there any other factors which made society ripe for panicking? Pearson notes that during the 1850s transportation of criminals to Australia ended, and by 1868 public hangings had ended in Britain and the death penalty was only implemented for murder. Society may have feared this new apparent leniency. By creating folk devils from petty criminals they gave voice to their fear and were able to justify their panic.
Was the reduction in capital punishment to blame for the disenfranchised youth who were now able to ‘get away’ with crimes? Seemingly not. There were problems with youth crime before the abolition of the death penalty, as the conception of the ‘Society for Investigating the Causes of the Alarming Increase of Juvenile Delinquency in the Metropolis’ in 1815 suggests (Kirton, 2005; Pearson 1992).. The blame shifted, it was the fault of parenting and moral standards, not the fault of the penal system, the label was different, but the problem of youth offending, juvenile delinquency, hooligans, or even hoodies, remains constant.
Pearson (1992) has found examples of such youthful behaviour as far back as Britain’s pre-industrial age, and he has similarly found examples of pre-industrial nostalgia, with a belief that youth’s were much better behaved in William the Conquerors day! Explanations for delinquency seem to oscillate throughout the history set out in Pearson’s book, from welfare based, parenting and low morals, to blame of financial status (often too much affluence without the necessary high morals to spend it). Dramatists were known to exaggerate the problems of youth crime, and this may well have led to a continuing deviancy amplification spiral.
Some of the approaches to dealing with the youth crime situation will now be explored, again drawing on existing sociological theory and discourse, to see, whether firstly, there is any measurable impact on levels of offending and secondly whether there is any obvious impact on the development of labels and moral panic.
Young people (and especially young, teenage males during the transition from school to work) are responsible for more crime than any other subclass or subculture, (see Wilson et al, 2005 for recent statistics). Causation is hard to pinpoint, and as we have seen it varies throughout time, yet the manner in which we choose to manage the problem of young people offending is becoming seemingly more authoritarian, or paternalistic (current measures are outlined in Home Office, 2000). Moral panic drives politicians who strive for popularity and re-election.
As rationing ended following the second world war, England was apparently in a wave of optimism and exuberance, the birth of the welfare state and an increased interest in psychiatry and psychology merged to give the newly developing social workers, and the ever changing educationalists a new approach to youth offending. (Newburn, 2002, Brown, 1998, Muncie, 2004). Of particular relevance to the care of young offenders was the development of attachment theory by psychologists such as Harlow, Bowlby and Ainsworth (see Bretherton, 1992). This work led to the belief that the attachment of the infant and toddler to it’s mother defines how the young teenager forms relationships and develops. The logical step taken was that young offenders were the result of poor attachments and therefore poor parenting (but we have already seen that this is far from a new theory). A welfare approach to supporting young offenders was developed, away from the penal system and towards care homes (the theory was perhaps let down by poor practice here). The welfare model was not a popular means of punishment, and moral panic appeared yet again in the face of youth who had no fear and therefore no respect for the state (Brown, 1998).
Somewhat predictably when the Conservatives came to power in 1979 they brushed aside the by now unpopular welfare model in favor of a sentencing model. Yet still they promoted cautions and diversions over sentences (and predictably the statistics show an increase in cautions for young offenders at this time). The theory underpinning the 1980s Conservative approach to youth offending was simple. With a national peak offending rate of between 15 and 18 years old, people must grow out of offending through the life course, and whilst crime should not go by unpunished, nor should young offenders be forced to extend their criminal networks and knowledge through contact with other young offenders. (Kirton, 2005). Moral panic regarding young offenders was low during this time of diversionary practice. In 1991 the criminal justice act continued to promote custody as only a last resort, and little should really have changed in the treatment of young offenders as a result, but media panic of this seemingly over lenient legislation led, predictably to moral panic and an outbreak of public fear that other normal behaviour (meeting in groups etc) was to be criminalised (Kirton, 2005).
In response to this moral panic, and in response to the one off, high profile case of the murder of child James Bulger by children barely over the legal age of comprehension young offender units (borstals with a new name) were introduced and promoted. By 1997 there were 40% more children in custody than in 1994 (Kirton, 2005) and at this stage in the discourse there is little reason to suggest that youth offending was 40% worse over that 3 year period.
New Labour, on a wave of moral panic, have designed and implemented an authoritarian approach to dealing with young offenders which assumes that young people are more responsible for their actions than previously thought. It is a victim based approach with an emphasis on restoring justice, and little consideration to the circumstances leading up to the crime. They have increased the amount of time a youth can be detained in custody for from 6 months per offence to 2 years. They introduced the anti-social behaviour orders which target youthful boisterousness and exuberance, and have become a badge of honour amongst many gangs of teenagers. They have lowered the age of criminal responsibility meaning that children can be charged younger. (Kirton, 2005). The media have seen that there is a need to lock up children again, they have noted a huge increase in anti-social behaviour (which is actually measurable for the first time) and they have noticed the uniform worn by groups of young people and christened them ‘hoodies’. The ensuing moral panic, when compared to the histories discussed previously is somewhat inevitable.
This paper has moved through time, sociological theory and successive legislation in order to explore the problem of youth offending and whether it is truly increasing. We have seen that youth offenders have always existed, and while speculation is unwise, it seems possible that for some young males this behaviour may serve some purpose, indeed it may serve a purpose for society as a whole. Governments will continue to meet with the problem of youth behaviour and successive societies are likely to fall into the lure of the media, and to fall into the ever spinning deviancy amplification spiral. To answer the assertion that youth offending is at an all time high is tricky. Moral panic is high, youth offending figures have fallen, but they are a factor of statistical anomaly. It seems that society is prone to demonising others, and society has consistently feared groups of different people. Time may show that New Labour have been wise to take this strong approach, or it may go the same way as all previous initiatives. Youth offending is a problem, but it is probably more a victim of demonising and moral panic than a true menace within society.