This week I want to reflect on young offenders. Should they be seen and treated as criminals at all, why do some young people offend and how can we change the course of their lives towards a more positive future? I would like to answer those questions by reflecting on my own youth and childhood.
Now, I don’t want to pretend I come from a typical working-class family from a deprived estate in one of the poorest area’s of the country, cause I actually grew up in a middle-class well off family, in a richer part of a new estate in a village in the West of the Netherlands. So straight off, that is not the average type of family for someone who briefly ended up in prison at the age of 18. But what is striking is the circumstances and behaviour prevalent in my family growing up, and that nobody intervened and tried to stop the harm that went on.
Many young offenders have grown up in deprived areas, in single parent families often from BAME communities, have experienced abuse and neglect and have poor academic achievements. After analysing child prison services in England and Wales criminologists Jessica Jacobson and collegues (2010) as cited in Manlow (2019, p. 166) argued that before being imprisoned:
- 51% lived in deprived households and/or unsuitable accomodation
- 47% had at some point in their lives run away from home
- 27% had been in local authority care
- 12% had experienced the loss of a parent/sibling
- 48% had been excluded from school
Then a later report from the Ministry of Justice (2013) cited research with the following findings:
- 50% of 15-17 year olds in public sector young offenders institutions had literacy levels expected of 7-11 year olds.
- 18% had a statement of special educational needs
- 27% of young men aged 15-17 had emotional or mental health problems
- 39% had been on the Child Protection Register or had experienced child abuse or neglect.
Out of all these points I tick four. And I don’t tick more because Social Services didn’t get involved, because nobody alerted them, and nobody died although there were several attempts which could have resulted in death. I did have severe problems at school which turned out was partly due to having dyscalculia (dyslexia for numbers) which was never diagnosed. But I wonder, if those issues would be addressed, how many of those young people and children would still offend?
And that is the interesting question everyone in society should think about. I am absolutely convinced, that if someone had alerted the authorities, social services or the school I went to about the horrific abuse I was witnessing at home, the torture of my adopted sister by my mother, and the neglect we were both experiencing, that I wouldn’t have had the devastating consequences of this. If we would have been taken into care, and placed in a loving family with specialist support to deal with the trauma, I know we would both now been much better equipped to go through life, and support our own children. I would not have gone to prison, or experienced more endless abuse in my teens and adulthood.
I don’t think I even need to give evidence of the positive results of giving children love, compassion and attention, a decent home, food and clothing and especially the opportunity to play, and be heard. It is simply common sense. By locking children and young people up, depriving them from the basics a human need to develop, by treating them harshly and without compassion, what do you expect to happen to that person? What chance does that child have to be a law-abiding, productive citizen? I say none. And most young people and children in prisons in England and Wales have had traumatising experiences before being incarcerated, so by locking them up and depriving them from the basics what will happen to this child when released is to me simply cause and effect; they will be more likely to commit further offenses.
(cited in Manlow, 2019, p. 1
So, why do children and young people commit offenses? Well, this also is a matter of cause and effect. In this capitalist system, where public services like Social Services, local authority care provision for children, mental health services, schools and youth clubs are cut from funding to such a degree that quality service is no longer possible, the safety net for vulnerable children is no longer available. Then also wages are very low, work is precarious for many parents who fall into poverty, and domestic abuse and mental health problems cause many children to get into harmful or deprived situations. And where there is poverty and very few chances of decent work the easy money being made in drugs trafficking or other criminal behaviour is very tempting. Many children and young people are vulnerable to exploitation and get groomed into gangs or prostitution. And that is basically what happened to me too.
I suffered domestic abuse and neglect as a child and got expelled from school age 16. By that time I had already been sexually abused and ran away from home age 17. I was extremely vulnerable, I started to use drugs from age 15 and developed serious mental health issues as a result from the abuse which all was completely undiagnosed. I had psychosis and PTSD by the time I was 18 and still had not received any help, support or diagnosis from anyone. I continued to be sexually abused by men, sometimes I knew them, but often I didn’t. I had no control over my life at all. I got into prison when I took part in a resistant eviction of a squat, together with 6 others. I got sentenced to 3 weeks in prison of which 2 weeks on licence, so I only was in prison for a week, but it was very hard, because I wasn’t allowed to mix with the other inmates, and was locked up 23.5 hrs a day, half hour in the yard by myself. There was no support at all and we were treated very badly by the police and in court, including extreme interrogation techniques. They left the light on for 24 hours a day, and non-stop music in cells so you couldn’t sleep. They beat some of my friends up really badly for no reason, in the cell next to me which I could hear. They followed and monitored my friends on the outside.
All this time I had not received any help, support or intervention from any services, nor were me or my sister taken into care, which should have happened, and my parents should have been charged with child abuse and neglect. Instead my sister was blamed for having behavioural issues and my parents continued to abuse her until finally at 15 she left. I am sure if she had stayed she would have died. All this happened in the 70’s and 80’s when mental health and social services were in its infancy.
As a result my life totally spiralled out of control, and around age 22 or 23 I was addicted, and nearly got groomed and forced into prostitution by a gang of criminals. I managed to escape, but at that time I was so utterly traumatised, ill and skin on bones I felt I had no choice but to go back to my parents, to get off drugs and try to turn my life around. I did that all by myself, because still, I had no help or support. I didn’t know where to turn or what to do, but I got out and started again.
I think, that if the thousands of opportunities were taken by state agencies to interfere and rescue me and my sister at a young age, much of the abuse and trauma that happened even through to my adult life wouldn’t have occurred. I might very well have not got to prison, not been excluded from school and had a successful career. Instead I now struggle with chronic mental health and back pain and have for most of my life had to live of benefits because I can’t hold down a job. I have suffered domestic abuse by 2 partners who are also the fathers of my children. I still can’t deal with relationships and struggle to have a social life. All this could have been prevented.
My point is, that in my opinion many crimes can be prevented if we look after people in society. If people have the means, and I mean this in the broadest sense of the word, to work and sustain themselves in every aspect of life, they generally won’t commit crime. If children, all children, are looked after with love, care and respect, and are listened to, they likely won’t commit crime. Maybe we should give it a try.
Manlow, D. (2019), ‘Deconstructing youth justice’ in Downes, J., Kent, G., Mooney, G., Nightingale, A. and Scott, D. (eds.) Introduction to criminology 2, Milton Keynes, The Open University.