Addressing the Causes of Crime

It has been a strange few weeks for me on a personal level, as I successfully applied for a post in a newly established research and consultancy centre at the University (the Northampton Institute of Urban Affairs). A few weeks ago I attended an open day at another University, and at the end of the day sat in the Union bar drinking a soft drink prior to returning home. In the bar I noticed a poster which gave the stark warning that 50% of all violent crime is committed when people are intoxicated.I was reminded of this poster when I was listening to the father of Samantha Madgin talking about his daughter, a young woman, who had been tragically stabbed to death. The father spoke with real dignity about the anguish he felt and how, in his view, the supermarkets where in part to blame because of the ‘cheap booze’ that they continued to supply.

I cannot imagine the devastation, hurt and anger these parents must feel for the loss of their young daughter – and in this case the fact they are going to have to explain to her young son how his mother was murdered. In looking at this tragic killing it is also easy to forget that the person who committed the offence was a 15-year-old child, who was intoxicated by a lethal dose of alcohol and cocaine.

Wider issues

Make no mistake I think this was an appalling crime which should be punished. However, I believe there are wider societal issues here that need to be looked at. Yes, we should punish miscreants, but we should also recognize that this child one day will be released, unless we decide to lock her up and throw away the key.

A deeper issue also needs to be looked at, which is linked to my new job. In this period in which the Government is at one level wanting to build 3 million new homes, it is also looking at ways to regenerate older deprived communities. In both the new and old we need to be focusing on our communities.

It is important to remember in this context that merely adding new houses to a town will not ‘regenerate’ and may in actual fact add to the problems resulting in an assortment of separate communities, which was acknowledged in the Cantle report (which focused on the race riots in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley) where communities were seen as living “a series of parallel lives”[i]. This separateness is a real major issue as was shown by Robert Putnam[ii], in his seminal book Bowling Alone, where he talked about the importance of social capital, the interconnectedness of people living within a community. The focus, therefore, needs to be on helping people feel that they belong and have a stake in their community.

We know how to physically build houses and we also have a good idea of the environmental impact of those buildings, but where we still have limited knowledge is in how to ‘build’ a community; how to help people feel a part of a community and give people a sense of belonging.

In many of our deprived communities, the deprivation is not just linked to economic deprivation; it is linked for many to a social and psychological deprivation, a feeling of alienation, which is marked by a sense of hopelessness. If you have no sense of hope, people may turn to things like alcohol and drugs to deaden the boredom and may even turn to violence in order to try and gain some control over their lives. On the other extreme some may turn to fanaticism as a way to gain a sense of identity and belonging.

In this situation it is easy to pathologise and blame others for the problem and it is also easy to look to the criminal justice system as the sole arbiter of behaviour. But the latter course does not provide answers or solutions; it merely punishes without addressing the underlying issues (for example, a lack of skills) and it is these issues that need to be addressed if people are going to feel they have a stake in their community.

From a perspective of working with children, we need to always remind ourselves of what Every Child Matters states, which is that it is the Government’s aim that for every child, whatever their background or their circumstances, to have the support they need to:

  • Be healthy
  • Stay safe
  • Enjoy and achieve
  • Make a positive contribution
  • Achieve economic well-being

Building positive communities

This treatise mirrors what is needed when working with all communities. In this context what is required is a strategy for the whole and not just individual parts, which means that we need to adopt a multi-faceted and multi-disciplinary response including a clear community engagement strategy. At times these words can be easy to say, ignoring both the problems and difficulties in engaging with communities who are at best sceptical of yet another initiative.

However, when we are working with young people, all our interventions must first of all be predicated on what the young person is saying, understanding the young person’s lived experience rather than just rushing in on the basis that we need to be ‘seen to be doing something’. All too often we just concentrate on the ‘problem’, rather than looking at the strengths that a person, family or community has.

Adopting such an asset-based approach begins to help people to see that they can often find their own solutions. In looking at the number of tragic violent events that have happened in the last few months, solutions will only be found if the strengths of communities are garnered. Merely parachuting another ‘expert’ into a town often fails because the people do not feel part of a solution.

The killer of Samantha Madgin needs to be punished for what she has done, and take responsibility for her actions. In my view, however, we will be failing Samantha Madgin and others like her if we do not try not only to help her but also communities which are suffering multiple levels of deprivation. Merely building houses or improving the physical fabric of a place does not make a community. I would also suggest that it is also important to remember that merely punishing somebody does not give them the skills to survive and contribute to society.



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