The Role Of The Media Criminology Essay

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Social breakdown is one of the main problems faced by modern society. Governments have been trying for years to eliminate it. Through these efforts and the influence by the media they turned outward the view that youth justice is a disturbing symptom and consequence of social breakdown.

In my view, 'youth crime' as we know it contributes to social breakdown largely. However, behind the scenes that the media peddle us, I believe that young offenders are not themselves liable for this social breakdown but rather the society and the legal system. I will demonstrate this view by reference to a number of arguments. Firstly, as to how young offenders can be seen as victims, secondly a discussion of the minimum age conviction and the role of the media through the case study of James Bulger's death. Finally, the anti-social behaviour among young people and in the end I will illustrate the three most important future directions for youth justice policy.

Children as victims

According to a recent survey, recorded crime for the year 2010/11 was 4,150,097 of which 176,511 were proven offences by young people [1] but also 95 per cent of children surveyed had been victims of crime on at least one occasion. Furthermore, a report made by the Victim Support has suggested that a 'causal link' between victimisation and offending exists, victimisation predicts offending and vice versa. [2] The pathways explaining how offending can lead to victimisation were: retaliatory violence by the victim and lack of protection for the offender from adults in authority. Especially violent offenders were less likely to be protected by adults in authority because of negative attitudes towards them. This marginalisation by the authorities is the main reason why young offenders become victims and this cycle continues, forcing them to reoffend in order to 'survive'.

The pathways explaining how victimisation leads to offending are: retaliatory violence, displaced retaliation carried out by the victim and not always against their attacker but displaced on to another victim and when the victim befriends offenders. Another significant reason is that victimisation (abuse, neglect, maltreatment)in childhood might cause trauma which adversely affects personal development and increases the likelihood that the 'childhood victim' will become an 'adult offender'. [3] 

Furlong argued that 'In many aspects, the concentration on young people as the perpetrators of crimes has left us blind to the extent to which young people are victims...while adults express concerns about 'lawless' youth, many crimes are also committed against young people by adults'. [4] For instance, rape, child abuse and trafficking, later affect the personal development of the child and increase the chances of him becoming what he had been undergone, a young criminal.

Therefore, it appears that it cannot correctly be said without more that youth contribute to social breakdown. External factors lead them to offend as in fact they are just victims in a situation where the only way they can react is by offending. As Brown argues, 'young people have to earn their status as victims, whereas they are eagerly ascribed their status as offenders'. [5] 

Age conviction

The principle that children should be protected from the full weight of 'adult' criminal justice systems underpins the concept of welfare. [6] Section 1(1) of the Children Act 1989 states:'when a court determines any question with respect to a child the child's welfare shall be the court's paramount consideration'. Moreover, in Norway, in a discussion about how youth criminals should be treated, a member of the conservative party explained:"there is no discussion about people under 15 going to prison. It's just common sense...It is almost not a subject, because that will not help, and that is obvious for everybody." [7] 

Contrary, while the age of acquiring responsibility to vote is 18 and to get a job is 13, the minimum age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales was set at 10 in the Children and Young Persons Act 1963. [8] This relates to the age when a child's act of transgression can be processed as 'crime'. In my view the criminal conviction age in England is too low and I consider it as one of the reason why youth crime rates are so high and therefore youth crime is seen as an element of social breakdown.

Criminalising children as young as 10 for less serious crime is an ineffective means of punishment and subjecting children to criminal interventions at such a young age means they may be more likely to commit further offences, 'continue the conveyor belt of crime' [9] and result in a period in custody as research shows. For instance, the case where two boys aged 10 and 11 were convicted of attempted rape of an 8-year-old girl. Now the two boys have their names placed on the Sex Offender Register even though the incident seemed to be a 'childish thing'. The girl told the court afterwards, she had lied to her mother about what had happened because she had been "naughty" and was worried she would not get any sweets. [10] Even if the boys did act inappropriately, there were better ways of dealing with the situation instead of treating them as adult criminals, ruining their lives and contributing in this way to social breakdown.

The role of the media

When 'Jamie', the two-year-old boy was murdered by two ten-year-old boys in England in 1993, the political and public concern about crime substantially increased. The number of youths aged 15 to 17 held in prisons rose from 769 to 2089 until 2002. [11] Twenty months later Silje Redergard was murdered by two six-year-old boys in Norway. The interesting thing is the vastly different responses of the English and Norwegian criminal justice systems to these cases. Whereas James' killers were subject to extreme press and public hostility, held in secure detention for nine months, with no psychiatric treatment and served eight years in custody, Redergard's killers were shielded from public hostility and carefully reintegrated into community. [12] There is no doubt however, about the mischievous impact on the personality development of the killers of 'Jamie' due to the war they received from the media.

It is well-known that when a story is of 'shock value' it makes it newsworthy and papers sell more. Therefore, as might be expected, youth crime stories 'sell more' than others. The quantity of articles produced in the year-long period beginning the day each homicide occurred were analysed. The 'Jamie' case was a major issue in the press in England with 256 articles in broadsheet newspaper and 152 in tabloid. In Norway, the Redergard case got prominent attention with 16 articles in broadsheet newspaper and 56 in tabloid [13] , a small number compared to Bulger case and only for a short period.

Moreover, the press coverage suggested, the Bulger case concerned, a brutal, wilful murder calling the 10-year-old boys 'creeping evils of violence'. English newspapers bring to light the case of Bulger even today. In 2007 tabloid stories alleged that 'Evil Venable' has become a born-again Christian and that 'Devil Dad' Thompson recently fathered a child with his girlfriend, who is said, does not know of his past. [14] In contrast, the press coverage in Norway concerned the murder of Silje as the accidental death of an innocent by innocents using a 'child welfare' frame.

What had happened to the two children is depressing but it is even more depressing to read the comments put forward in the English papers, supporting 'the boys were born evil' when we all know that the murder could be the influence of violent television that feeds our children daily. Treating the two young killers in this way until today, is unjust and it is also a factor that influences society to believe that youth crime contributes to social breakdown whereas the media are in fact those who cause this breakdown.

Anti-social behaviour


Over the last decade, ASB has become a great deal of political interest and policy concern in the UK and a great number of legislative powers have been introduced to tackle it. However, defining what is meant by ASB is not straightforward. As Ashworth and Millie have noted the boundless definition of 'anti-social behaviour' extends to a wide range of activities, misdemeanours and incivilities. [15] Legislation defines it as behaviour that 'causes or is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress' to others. [16] 

This definition is too broad and it did not help to define the nature of ASB; after all what causes harassment, alarm or distress to one person can be considered as acceptable behaviour to another. [17] According to Squires the term 'anti-social behaviour' has become "a virtual metaphor for the condition of contemporary Britain,particularly its youth" [18] and according to Burney it is often seen as synonymous to youth. Moreover, when survey respondents are answering BCS questions on whether certain types of ASB are a 'problem', they are not necessarily focusing their minds on the actual demonstration of the behaviour they are complaining about but rather, ASB is seen as problematic by some people insofar as it is taken to be an indicator of social breakdown. [19] 

In other words, the use of the definition 'as a synonymous to youth' and the fact that ASB is seen as an indicator of social breakdown in the minds of the survey respondents and thus in every person's, it entails that this is another reason why youth crime is incidentally seen as a consequence of social breakdown.

'Tackling ASB'

Among the legislative powers that have been introduced to tackle ASB, are the powers given to the police to disperse groups and the introduction of the Anti-Social Behaviour Order. [20] ASBO is a civil order that can be used to prohibit a person from almost any behaviour identified as antisocial and a breach of the order is punishable by criminal sanctions. [21] In other words, it is a civil order that can make you a criminal if breached and it is greatly criticised. More importantly, the powers of the police to disperse groups under the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 [22] were also criticised. The police have the power to disperse groups of two or more people from designated areas where it is believed to be significant and persistent anti-social behaviour.

Such powers are critisised for allowing arbitrary police enforcement and they may become the cause of serious crimes that contribute to social breakdown. 82% of the young people surveyed, said they felt safest in public places when in groups and were concerned about their vulnerability if dispersed. They also stated the lack of suitable, safe venues for youths to meet and that dispersal powers give them feelings of unfairness and injustice and thus reasons to be angry. [23] 

I believe, based on the surveys, that the discretionary nature of the powers allows too much scope for the police to base their judgements on stereotypes (e.g. clothing) and render normal activities and youth sociability as anti-social. Yet for many youths, meeting friends in public spaces is a fundamental aspect of developing their sense of identity and control [24] and by criminalising this conduct they cause them to react by offending, contributing in this way to social breakdown.

Youth Justice Policy

Restorative Justice

Restorative justice has been one of the most significant developments in criminal justice and criminological practice over the past two decades. [25] It has been defined as "a process whereby all the parties with a stake in a particular offence come to resolve collectively how to deal with the aftermath of the offence and its implications for the future" [26] and I believe that it forms one of the most important directions for youth justice policy.

Restorative justice can better support victims of youth crime and help reduce offending. It enables victims to have their say and talk about the full impact of a crime on their lives and also offenders to talk about why they committed the crime and are given the opportunity to help put things right with the victim by repairing the damage they have caused. [27] The restorative justice interventions include victim-offender mediation facilitated by a mediator or conferencing with family members and/or trained community volunteers. Even though most victims may well not want to be reminded of an incident if it was traumatic and upsetting, giving them the chance to discuss may help them to surpass it and also disincline them from following the pathway from victimisation to offending especially applying to young children.

Nonetheless, restorative justice plays an important role in reducing reoffending. By enabling offenders to discuss instead of a mere punishment, they can rethink the consequences of the harm done and learn from the experience. Moreover, it may be the first time someone is interested in hearing what they have to say and this is something they will appreciate. Contact with the victim will be helpful to make them regret the harm done.

Reducing child imprisonment

According to article 40(3) of the UNCRC'a child in conflict with the law has a right to be treated in a manner consistent with the promotion of the child's sense of dignity and worth...' The last decade has seen a rise in the use of custody for children aged 10 to 14, most of whom have not committed serious offences and who have been failed by state agencies from an early age. [28] Especially after the introduction of the Detention and Training Order 2000 that has made it easier for courts to sentence children. In October 2008, the UNCRC registered its disapproval at the number of children in the UK deprived of their liberty through the criminal justice process and submitted a report alleging a failure to use custody as a last resort. [29] 

I believe the second most important direction for youth justice policy is to reduce child custody. Custody for children 10 to 14-years-old is expensive and ineffective as nearly 80% of them re-offend within 12 months of release. [30] Moreover, custody excludes children from education, exposes them to the brutality of other children in jails and leaves them with no suitable accommodation. Children who offend should be viewed as 'children in need' and invest pubic money in support services including tailored support programmes, helping them fitting back into the community, accessing education and addressing the complex problems they face instead of custody. [31] A 14-year-old girl stated "it would make a difference if people just say 'we have faith in you', and not put us down even more". This is exactly what we have to do to stop forcing them being part of the social breakdown.


The third important direction for youth justice policy is resettlement. High levels of personal and socio-economic disadvantage experienced by young people are likely to undermine their motivation to successfully resettle in the community. [32] Ensuring that children have suitable accommodation and education, training and employment (ETE) on release from custody is a vital step to reduce reoffending and enable young people to successfully reintegrate into the community. [33] 

YJB commissioned research found that 40% of youths who had offended had been homeless at some point and for them, the children's services or housing authorities have a statutory responsibility to assist them with housing. [34] Moreover, returning to a full time ETE is a significant element for a new beginning but the stigma of having a criminal conviction and custodial record simply worsens this already bleak scenario for young offenders. Despite the low level of successful outcomes from ETE programmes, HMIP expects that young offenders are supported in preparing for their future by making progress in education, learning and skills in custody and continue when released with the help of careers advice services, local learning councils and local education authorities.


Concluding, in order for youth offenders to completely cease constituting a consequence of social breakdown there is a need to broaden the ways of thinking about crime. Nonetheless, there is a need for dedicated people to work for the local authorities to offer help to young offenders that have faith on them. Finally, a reform is needed to return to more flexible, discretionary rather than statutory rigid system to protect this country's young children.