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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

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