Youth Crime Community Based Crime Criminology Essay

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This research will examine the concept of the increasing criminalisation of youth by exploring the state's intensive and increasing focus upon law and order, dispensed through formal and informal methods of control. Opinions of youth crime and crime and disorder policies will be explored following interviews and surveys across Suffolk with young people aged 16 - 17, Police Community Support Officers and Youth Offending Team practitioners.

Aims & Significance

The key aim is to produce a comprehensive study which will provide an insight into the perceptions of individuals growing up within, and practitioners working within an era where young people are more susceptible to criminalisation than any other generation (Liberal Democrats, 2009). The research findings will contribute towards increasing understanding in the area of youth crime, specifically in exploring the perspective of individuals as explained above; as Becker stated, "to gain a fuller understanding of the world it is essential that we consciously take the perspective of the oppressed rather than the oppressor" (1967, cited in Galliher, 1995:169). Furthermore, the research will provide an insight of the juxtaposition of inclusionary preventative initiatives and exclusionary reactionary methods (Hughes, 2007) established upon an unrealistic, idealised model of 'community'. Exploring this concept will enable debate about the value of community-based initiatives and the consequences of contradictory agendas.

Background

There has been an increasing focus upon the 'problem' of young people over the last decade, exacerbated by media representations of young people as 'out of control' and 'dangerous'. It has been argued (Hughes, 2007; Muncie, 2004, Scraton, 1997) that the murder of toddler James Bulger in 1993 contributed significantly to the social construction of youth as 'dangerous', leading ultimately to the synonymous association of 'youth' and 'crime'. Such a heinous crime by two children invoked ambivalence amongst the general public and coupled with the furore over antisocial behaviour and youth-related knife crime since the late 90's, this has amounted to a genuine fear and anxiety of young people - more commonly known as 'ephebiphobia' (Byron, 2009); the IPPR noted in a report that only 34% of Britons "would be willing to intervene if they saw a group of 14-year old boys vandalising a bus shelter" (cited in BBC News, 2006). In response to public anxiety and outrage alongside a populist punitive approach adopted from the previous government, New Labour have introduced a plethora of new legislation and initiatives in an attempt to control and reduce the prevalence of youth deviance and crime. As a result of the increasing number of ways to be criminalised - such as breaking the conditions of an ASBO - a civil contract, the criminalisation of young people has increased (Liberal Democrats, 2009), arguably as fast as the levels of tolerance towards young people have decreased (Barnardos, 2008)

Theoretical Perspectives

Moral Panic & media amplification - Cohen defines moral panic as:

"A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media" (Cohen, 1987:9).

Cohen's theory of the progression of moral panics and folk devils states that an initial problem transpires, often culturally or structurally related, which leads to an initial outburst of related deviant action causing a societal reaction. The media then dramatises the issue, constructing stereotypes, reinforced through continued coverage. This creates a polarisation effect, highlighting the problem further resulting in the theory being proved as the image of the folk devil is created and founded firmly in the minds of society (1987:199). Media amplification is evident and it can be argued that the government's actions of endless campaigns and policies added to this, creating societal panic and the unjust, exaggerated discrimination of young people.

Social control and net widening - Innes (2003) states that social control, a "form of organised reaction to deviant behaviour" is a response to society's view of deviancy, and new methods are sought depending on the 'anxieties of the moment'. Such schemes represent a new 'manufactured social control' where previous mechanisms of control have been built upon to further conjoin authority with community (Innes; 2003:152), also regarded as widening the net of social control.

Labelling Theory - this theory, coined by theorists such as Becker (1963) and Cohen (1987), focuses on societal reactions to crime, both formal and informal, and acknowledges that such responses shape society's expectations and cultural standards. As Becker (1963) notes, "Deviance is…a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an 'offender'. The deviant is one to whom that label has successfully been applied: deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label." (Becker, 1963:9).

Underclass theory - coined by Murray, 'underclass' tends to refer to marginalised, excluded individuals/groups within society and has been specifically applied to youth. The underclass theory has been criticised for its simplistic analysis that ignores structural factors which contribute directly to exclusion. As MacDonald (1997:172) argues, "an outcome of the changing structural position of youth might be the evolvement of later (sub)cultural adaptations which serve to consolidate youth exclusion; that even if structural impediments were removed, 'underclass' youth would remain marginalised by their own values, behaviours and outlooks".

Research Questions & Objectives

The key objective of this research is to explore the increasing criminalisation of young people. This will be addressed through the following research questions:

Has the blurring of boundaries between civil and criminal sanctions, implemented to control unruly young people, contributed to the increasing prison population and criminalisation of youth?

Is the criminalisation of young people a form of indirect victimisation, potentially limiting future prospects?

Research Strategy

The research strategy is primarily underpinned by realist ontology, advocating that "social phenomena exist independently of both the observer and the social actors (Blaikie, 2000:119). Mixed methods will be adopted to collect and analyse the data. The pragmatist paradigm has been chosen as it will enable thorough exploration of the topic from different perspectives, with different methods. In turn, this will enable triangulation and therefore consistency in data analysis (Tashakkori & Teddlie, 2003:104). Combining inductive and deductive models of research has been criticised by some academics (Blaikie, 2000; Lincoln & Guba, 2000) as it is perceived to clash with epistemological and ontological commitments (Blaikie, 2000). However, Engel & Schutt (2005) note that the strategies can complement one another; inductive reasoning can help address the "serendipitous findings" caused by "unexpected patterns in the data collected for testing a hypothesis", and inductive explanations are regarded with higher reliability if tested by utilising a deductive model (Engel & Schutt, 2005:45).

The researcher takes the view expressed by academics such as Engel & Schutt (2005), Patton (1990) and Tassakkori & Teddlie (2003) that the methods are compatible and although they may have some "distinctive epistemological and ontological assumptions" these are not deterministic (Bryman, 2001:447). By adopting a "concurrent embedded strategy" (Creswell, 2009:214), a broader perspective on the topic can be attained enabling data collection at different levels with comparative/contrasting analysis. Careful attention will be paid to transforming the data into a universal format in order to prevent potential discrepancies and bias.

Methodology

The chosen population will be 16 and 17 years; this age group has been chosen as it is the primary group targeted by the laws/policies upon which this study is focused. Sampling younger participants was considered but this would have complicated the practical side of this research due to the requirement for parental consent, a time-consuming and complicated process when taking into account the size of sample and time-scale for the research.

Focus group interviews will be conducted with 3 youth clubs in the county. Each group will represent a section of Suffolk (North, South and West) [1] , ensuring representativeness across the county. A random sample will be used to choose the youth group in each area and 8 volunteers will be selected as participants. This number has been chosen as less participants "may result in the discussion being somewhat narrow and biased in favour of a few individuals in the group" (Stewart et al, 2007:82), whereas more may result in 'over-crowding' and there is a "tendency for the group to fragment...[and] the problems of controlling the conversation are magnified" (Levy, 1979:34 cited in Stewart et al, 2007:82).

Focus group interviews have been selected because this method gives the research a different angle; as Morgan (1997:10) argues, "group discussions provide direct evidence about similarities and differences in the participants' opinions and experiences", therefore enabling the collection of rich, detailed data which can be compared with the statistical data. The focus groups will constitute the first stage of the research, serving an additional purpose of assisting with refining the questions for the survey. Utilising focus groups for this purpose is advocated as an effective and efficient way in which to ensure the questionnaire is well written, contains all relevant topics, is unbiased and focuses upon what is relevant rather than the researcher's perceptions (Morgan, 1997:25).

In order to access a large sample of the target population, questionnaires will be conducted within Suffolk schools with sixth-form provision. Suffolk County Council (2010b) lists 30 schools in this category but the research will be conducted with less in order to prevent over-representation in some areas, e.g. Ipswich (5 schools), Lowestoft (3 schools). A sample of approximately 300-360 students will be taken from within the target population [2] , with at least 12 questionnaires conducted per school. The researcher will attend each school, introduce the research to participants, and read through all the questions to ensure no confusion before the participants complete it alone, thereby reducing interviewer effects but ensuring that survey questions are understood (Singleton Jr & Straits, 2002). Stratified random sampling will be adopted to split the sample with regard to age and gender; i.e. 12 interviews, 6 with 16 year olds/6 with 17 year olds, and within these two groups, 3 male and 3 female. This approach is slightly complicated but has been chosen in order to achieve good representation at every level - by accessing the whole county, using sub-categories, and by focusing closely upon the geographical locations of the schools. In turn, this approach will produce data that may be generalised.

Questionnaires have been selected as this method will produce a large amount of coded, statistical data, enabling extensive analysis. The main aim for the questionnaires is to gauge the participants' perceptions of key topics such as the criminal justice system, youth policies in their local area and the public's perception of youth.

The final part of the practical research will be semi-structured interviews held with a Youth Offending Team practitioner and 2 Police Community Support Officers from the Suffolk Safer Neighbourhoods Teams - 1 rural and 1 urban to enable comparison of experiences. The purpose of these interviews will be to provide insight from the practitioners who actively implement/uphold local crime control policies. The detailed data collected will enable analysis from a different perspective and as a result will complement the other data (Bryman, 2002; Morgan, 1997); it will be interesting to compare the perspectives of those who practice the policies and those who are controlled by them.

Limitations

The study will be based upon a target population within Suffolk, arguably a small sample which would minimise the possibility of accurate generalisation to the UK. Generalising the data may also affect validity.

The time-frame for this research is limited which may impact upon co-ordinating/attaining access to participants and co-ordinating data collection. However, the researcher firmly believes that through organisational aptitude, these potential problems will be overcome.

The research will produce large amounts of data to collate and analyse. Attention will be paid to the structure of the survey to ensure the topics are not too broad which would complicate analysis. The semi-structured interviews will be conducted with the same topic guide which will also simplify the analysis.

Maintaining control of focus groups can be an issue (Morgan, 1997). Pilot focus groups may be conducted initially to improve technique - both to control and to incite interest and therefore conversation. Transcribing the data is a lengthy process but the data gathered from in-depth interviews will be of value as it is attained from an environment the participants are comfortable with, they will have freedom to express their view and hopefully enter into active debate.

Despite these potential limitations, considerable attention will be paid to the collection and collation of data. The research findings will highlight the overlooked area of young people's perceptions of youth policies, and therefore this exploratory research will stand in its own right raising formative debate about the influence of state power/control upon youth.

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