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Predicting young criminals


An educational resource at the heart of criminological teaching, debate, and research


Predicting young criminals

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The film Minority Report (2002) tells the story of a “pre-crime unit” who predict the criminals of the future, and before they commit the crime punish them. Law enforcement officials intervene and prevent the crime from taking place. The “potential offender” is then punished for the act they were going to commit. Of course, this is not real-life and seems far-fetched. However, this way of thinking does resonate with current practice models in youth justice. 

All too often, young people are judged on what they are thought capable of doing rather than what they have done in respect of deviant/criminal behaviour. This article explores the impact of this type of practice with (potential) young offenders and draws upon the now somewhat unfashionable labelling theory to contend that intervention can cause more harm than good.

Pre-crime and punishment

Early-intervention in the youth justice arena seems to be logical and a well-intentioned, benevolent response to crime and anti-social behaviour. To intervene in the life of a young person who is displaying problems and to counter-act those problems with help and support is common-sense, right? If, you are a practitioner tasked with conducting an assessment with a young offender, you will no doubt endeavour to ask varied questions and develop knowledge and understanding into the young offender’s background, and attitudes etc. etc. You will attempt to conduct a comprehensive assessment.

However, you will inevitably experience difficulties when it comes to calculating whether the problems/issues identified correlate with the young person’s offending behaviour. In practice you may have predicted that a young person will go on to commit crime and to your surprise they may go on to lead a “normal” crime-free life.

Group of 5 teenagersUp until quite recently, I worked for a North West Youth Offending Service where I had responsibility for co-ordinating interventions for young people who were identified to be on the cusp of engaging in criminal activity. Although the children I worked with were in need of support to tackle their problems, I was concerned whether we were best placed to deal with those issues. Many of the young people really needed help with education and health-related matters, not specifically crime-related issues. These young people were let down by traditional social-welfare services, such as youth services, and were coming to the attention of the police and the Youth Offending Team as a result of this. Moreover, I had responsibility for conducting assessments to predict the likelihood of a young person engaging in criminal activity. This is no simple task. The main difficulty is trying to work-out whether the problems were linked to crime or just general every-day issues that could be tackled by youth services. Young people were consistently over-assessed as a result of this and often given quite intrusive forms of intervention. It seemed, at times, we ignored the fact that these young people hadn’t actually committed any criminal offence. 

This risk-led approach has been described as “spurious prediction”, where it is like flipping a coin: “heads they offend, tails they don’t”. Although assessments may be useful in terms of guiding practice towards the identification of problems that need addressing and highlighting issues, it is far-from simplistic and common sense. Importantly, although there may be an embedded belief amongst practitioners that you can ‘effectively’ predict the young person who is going to engage in criminal activity, practitioners will inevitably “get it wrong”, resulting in young people unfairly labelled and stigmatised.

What is more, it is interesting to note that, providing intensive forms of early intervention to young people who do not require it can be counter-productive in terms of developing self-esteem and confidence. This approach seems to be primarily concerned with highlighting a young person’s failures, drawn from a deficit model of negativity, rather than developing a young person’s strengths.

The lack of emphasis on developing young people’s positive attributes, including self-esteem, may be particularly harmful for those girls, and boys, who respond more negatively to the labelling effect. Moreover, this risk-led approach may stigmatise young people unfairly. There are clearly ethical barriers to overcome with “targeting” and “predicting risk”, particularly with the usage of the term “pre-criminal”.

Surveillance, control and regulation

Historically (and arguably still today), youth justice policy-makers and practitioners have tended to encounter difficulties between treating the young offender by way of help and support (welfare) or inflicting punishment in proportion to the crime (justice). Rather than deciding the correct approach to take, however, youth justice policy and practice has shifted its emphasis towards risk, where the level of intervention is determined by the risk the young person presents. 

This method and way of thinking is very similar to that in the film Minority Report mentioned earlier: ‘We’re taking in individuals who have broken no law. But they surely will’. Arguably, it embraces the principles of surveillance, control and regulation. This is evident for example, with the introduction of Youth Inclusion and Support Panels (YISPs).

YISPs are pre-crime measures that “target”, and intervene with, those young people thought likely to commit crime. YISPs are benevolently constructed measures that provide help and support to young people, normally between the ages of 8-17, who require it. Young people may be referred via education, health or social care routes. This type of support is determined by the risk a young person presents. Again professionals conduct an assessment that provides a score to determine the correct level of intervention required. It is important to understand, however, that these young people have not committed any criminal offences and it is ethically concerning to note that terms such as “pre-criminal” and “crime-prone” are being used to describe them. This has resulted in young people receiving quite intrusive forms of intervention.

Labelled and stigmatised

Young people are being drawn into crime-prevention programmes as a direct result of cut backs across the social-welfare services. Young people who display challenging behaviour in the community and school settings are being dealt with by resort to youth justice professionals, who, as I have mentioned, have a tendency to focus on the negative aspects of young people’s lives due to the emphasis on risk management.

Teenage girls on school benchAlthough challenging offending behaviour in the community/social-welfare arena can be extremely effective, early-intervention in the youth justice setting can also be harmful for young people and counter-productive. Drawing upon labelling theory, initiatives such as the YISP have been criticised for introducing young people to formal intervention at an early stage.

These types of measures, rather than preventing crime, have the potential to increase the likelihood in a young person engaging a further criminal activity and/or developing further problems. Due to the emphasis on accepting blame and taking responsibility for their actions, young people embrace the concept of the offender, and view themselves in this negative way.

Concluding thoughts

Youth justice practice is risk-led, and in relation to the development of child- and young person-centred practices (with gender and age-specific components) practitioners feel constrained to deliver these forms of risk-oriented practice. This is partly due to the continued emphasis on the evaluation of performance and the demonstration of ‘quantifiable outcomes’ via risk assessments.

As an alternative, I would advocate a social-justice approach where young people are treated fairly and not judged, labelled or stigmatised. Rather than criminalising young people for committing minor crimes or displaying criminal tendencies and introducing them into a harmful system, informal community-based services seem much more promising, tailoring interventions to the child’s specific individual needs and abilities rather than their deficits or risky behaviours.

However, although this article is timely, with the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government not fully decided on how they will tackle issues of youth crime and justice, a rights-based welfare system seems unlikely. For example, although anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) have rightfully been axed, disappointingly in its place crime prevention injunctions (CPIs) have been introduced. These civil measures are again predicated upon the belief that young people are in need of control and regulation.

As with the risk-led approach of predicting crime, there are clear ethical concerns - as young people who are issued with CPIs are not provided with an opportunity to contest the allegations made against them. The principal of “innocent until proven guilty” is ignored. Importantly, although the Conservative-Liberal democrat government seem to support diversionary and restorative justice measures, they are intent on being seen to be “tough on crime”. Policy-makers and politicians would need to break with the old sentiments of “clamping down on lawless youth” and understand that young people require care and attention if they are to lead crime-free lives.

In re-designing policy and practice, it must be recognised that policy makers are influenced by factors other than that of research evidence: “resource constraints” and “political ideology” equally impact upon the construction of youth justice policy and practice. The Minority Report style of predicting future offending behaviour seems set to continue as it is apparently simplistic and common-sense: identify the problems and counteract them with help and support. However, as discussed throughout, this practice results in young people being described as “crime-prone” and “pre-criminal”.


This article is based on a paper entitled “Gender and justice: girls in the youth justice system” presented at the Women, Crime and Criminal Justice Practice conference, University of Cambridge, January 2012.

See also Creaney, S. (2012),"Risk, prevention and early intervention: youth justice responses to girls", Safer Communities, Vol. 11, 2, pp. 111–20.

The film Minority Report (2002) was directed by Steven Spielberg. Wikipedia reports that it was one of the best reviewed films of 2002 and grossed over $358 million worldwide, a huge commercial success. 

Sean Creaney is a Lecturer in Childhood Studies at the Centre for Education and Applied Social Sciences, Stockport College


# Carolyn johnson 2012-06-07 10:59
Interesting article Sean thank you. too often it feels as though justice systems are designed overnight in response to newspaper headlines. Early and tailored intervention has to be the key. If we fail to treat people as having some value and worthy of our best efforts why would we expect them to respond well.. People act in their own best interests and sometimes being defensive / resistant is the best thing they know how to do.
# Kathy Brodie 2012-06-07 22:56
Really interesting. The idea of someone being 'pre-criminal' or having to judge someone on that basis is truly scary. We spent a lot of time in the Early Years NOT labelling, unique child etc. - so when does the disconnect occur?

And I would totally agree with your conclusion - individual care and attention is essential in a civilised society.
# Sean Creaney 2012-06-07 23:34
Thanks Carolyn. Yes, David Cameron, a while back, tried to “do different” and mentioned the importance in understanding the causes of youth crime. However, it was misinterpreted as “hug a hoodie” and deemed to be a “soft-approach” what he was proposing. However, I suppose it is a vote-winner to talk tough on crime. I agree early intervention is so important. However, I think it is best best delivered in the social-welfare rather than Criminal Justice arena. Yes we need to treat young people with value and worth, and the current assessment framework in youth justice makes that difficult, sometimes. Assessment in youth justice is pretty much deficit-led. There is certainly room to focus more on strengths and aspirations. Thanks again for your comment Carolyn, and glad you enjoyed the article 
# Sean Creaney 2012-06-07 23:37
Thanks Kathy, yes risk seems to be the driving force now in all areas, welfare and justice! I think we need a different approach, more caring and supportive… but it takes courage from policy makers, and politicians and the general public who are often misinformed of the real extent of youth crime. Thanks for your comment Kathy, glad you liked the article.
# Mark Telford 2012-06-08 09:20
Quote in two parts as too long!

Lewis Carroll on Alice's encounter with the White Queen (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, chapter V):

"`What sort of things do you remember best?' Alice ventured to ask. `Oh, things that happened the week after next,' the Queen replied in a careless tone.

`For instance, now,' she went on, sticking a large piece of plaster on her finger as she spoke, `there's the King's Messenger. He's in prison now, being punished: and the trial doesn't even begin till next Wednesday: and of course the crime comes last of all.'
# Mark Telford 2012-06-08 09:21
Lewis Carroll(Part 2):

`Suppose he never commits the crime?' said Alice. `That would be all the better, wouldn't it?' the Queen said, as she bound the plaster round her finger with a bit of ribbon. Alice felt there was no denying that. `Of course it would be all the better,' she said: `but it wouldn't be all the better his being punished.' `You're wrong there, at any rate,' said the Queen. `Were you ever punished?' `Only for faults,' said Alice. `And you were all the better for it, I know!' the Queen said triumphantly. `Yes, but then I had done the things I was punished for,' said Alice: `that makes all the difference.' `But if you hadn't done them,' the Queen said, `that would have been better still; better, and better, and better!' Her voice went higher with each `better', till it got quite to a squeak at last. Alice was just beginning to say `There's a mistake somewhere --,' when the Queen began screaming, so loud that she had to leave the sentence unfinished."
# Colin Sumner 2012-06-08 09:35
Perfect quotes, Mark! You tempt me to add something from Erving Goffman's Asylums: "Mental hospitals are found [in our society] because there is a market for them... Everything that goes on in the hospital must be legitimated by assimilating [or translating] it...into a medical frame of reference. Daily staff actions must be presented as expressions of observation, diagnosis and treatment. To effect this translation, reality must be considerably twisted...A crime must be uncovered which fits the punishment" [1968: 334, my additions: CS]
# Ros Burnett 2012-06-09 15:29
Sean, Your article raises important questions about the ethics and harms of early intervention with children assessed as at risk of offending. Mark Telford's quote, above, from 'Alice Through the Looking Glass', is perfect for depicting the absurdity of punishment before any offence has been committed.... [Continued in next post: too long for one post]
# Ros Burnett 2012-06-09 15:32
[Continued]...I ’m not sure that it’s fair though to compare YISPs (Youth Inclusion and Support Programmes) with the extreme ‘pre-crime’ measures of exclusion taken in the film Minority Report. By definition, YISPs are meant to be inclusive and supportive, but of course you are right to point out the stigmatising and criminalising effects of labelling children and families and bringing them into the criminal justice system. The operative factors though, are: what kind of interventions they are (punishment or help? you acknowledged that the families you worked with needed help from educational and health services); who delivers the ‘I’ and ‘S’ (whether from inside or outside the criminal justice system); and whether or not they are perceived as helpful or intrusive and punitive by the young people and their families.
# Keith Savage 2012-06-13 10:19
Thanks Sean (and Mark for the Alice extracts). This isn't my professional area but any anticipatory labelling must be unhelpful. I live in Derbyshire where Youth Services are under review. One key issue seems to be about trying to remove young people from environments that support criminal experience (whatever that means exactly). The youth workers that I know want to work with young people so as to provide more positive and emotionally supportive life experiences that develop self-confidence and a readiness to be part of a community - rather than be deatched and in opposition. All of this is problematic - and doesn't get the headlines - but if we want to anticipate let's try and do so positively!
# Clarrie 2012-06-18 14:49
Thanks Sean, very interesting.
In line with what Keith and Kathy have mentioned, when considering children and childhoods there is a growing shift away from normative generalisations and more attention on keep individuals nested within their own context, time and place.
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