A finger in the air punt

Richard Garside discusses the problems with government research on youth crime.

By: 
Richard Garside
Date: 
Friday, 25 May, 2012

According to new Home Office research published yesterday, Young people aged 10 to 17 were responsible for 23 per cent of police recorded crime in 2009/10, equivalent to just over a million police recorded crimes.

What are we to make of these findings?

If we take the findings at face value, there is a strong gender bias towards young men. As the researchers point out,

'Young men aged 10 to 17 were found to be responsible for 20 per cent of all police recorded crime in 2009/10 and young women responsible for only four per cent.'

The ongoing tendency to assume that the experience and behaviour of half the population (men and boys) is a short-hand for the experience and behaviour of the entire population (women and men, girls and boys) distorts understanding of what is really going on.

So what is really going on here? Should we take the findings at face value? Does this research prove that young people are responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime? The short answer is no.

The research is based on the mashing together of two discrete but related datasets: police recorded crime statistics and data from the police national computer.

The first of these datasets - police recorded crime statistics - offers a detailed breakdown of incidents reported to or by the police that are also treated as a potential crime. The second of these datasets - the police national computer - gives detailed information on individuals who have accepted a police caution, received a fixed penalty notice or been convicted for a given offence.

Both datasets tell us many interesting things about the criminal justice process. Neither offers anything close to a comprehensive picture of the totality of crime and offending in England and Wales. This is because most crime and harmful incidents never comes to the attention of the police at all.

To assume that it does offer a comprehensive picture would be equivalent to visiting your local A and E ward and concluding that the miscellaneous collection of broken arms, bloody noses and kids with saucepans stuck on their heads offers a reliable picture of the health of the general population.

Given also that the criminal justice process is generally skewed towards dealing with the offences and infractions of young men, it should hardly surprise that they feature disproportionately in criminal justice datasets.

In short this is a sophisticated finger in the air punt. It will nourish prejudices about young people and crime. Those who want to believe that crime is a young person's business will find comfort in this report.

It does little to advance knowledge and understanding about who is responsible for crime and social harm.