Predicting criminality: youth justice and early intervention

Youth justice policy in England is focused on risk, leading young people to be labelled as 'pre-criminals' and intervention undertaken before they have broken the law. Is this a kafkaesque nightmare, or a common sense approach to stopping crime before it occurs?

Sean Creaney
4 October 2012

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.

Why do I bring this up? 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. I would conduct assessments to predict the likelihood of a young person engaging in crime. This is no simple task.

For example, I once worked with a young person who was referred by the local authority. Let’s call him Dan. I assessed Dan’s risk of re-offending by using the ONSET assessment tool (designed to predict the likelihood in ‘at risk’ youth committing crime). This tool purports to be holistic and covers areas such as living arrangements, education, and substance use. On completion of each section you are required to judge whether the issues identified are associated with the young person’s offending: 0 ‘not associated’ 4 ‘very strongly associated’. The young person’s ONSET score that will determine how often they are seen and how much intervention they receive. 

I found it difficult to judge whether the issues identified were associated with Dan’s offending behaviour. This resulted in Dan being ‘over assessed’ and subjected to rather intrusive forms of intervention. I felt Dan really needed help with education and health-related matters, not specifically crime-related issues. Like many of the young people I worked with, I felt Dan had been let down by traditional social-welfare services, such as youth services, and was coming to the attention of the police and the Youth Offending Team as a result of this. 

Moreover, the dominant risk-led approach in youth justice has been described as “spurious logic of prediction”, where it is like flipping a coin: ‘heads they offend, tails they don’t’.

Despite the embedded belief amongst practitioners that you can ‘effectively’ predict the young person who is going to engage in criminal activity, practitioners are inevitably liable to ‘get it wrong’ resulting in young people unfairly stigmatised and labelled.

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. For example, I worked with a number of young people on group-work interventions, conflict resolution and anger management. On many occasions, young people felt that the focus was on negative aspects of their lives and tended to damage confidence. Indeed, these approaches generally seem 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.

Surveillance, control and regulation

Historically (and arguably still today), youth justice policy-makers and practitioners have tended to weigh up treating the young offender through help and support (welfare/rehabilitation) or inflicting punishment in proportion to the crime (justice). Rather than deciding the correct approach to take, however, youth justice policy and practice, since New Labour in 1997, has shifted its emphasis towards risk, where the level of intervention is determined by the threat the young person presents. 

Back to Minority Report logic:  ‘We’re taking in individuals who have broken no law. But they surely will’. Arguably, this embraces the principles of surveillance, control and regulation. This is evident for example, with the introduction of Youth Inclusion and Support Panels (YISPs).

The "Pre-crime Division" in Minority Report

YISPs are a pre-crime intervention. They ‘target’, and intervene where young people are 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 may be referred via education, health or social care routes. This type of support is determined by the risk a young person presents.

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.

A New Approach? 

In 1997 New Labour swept to power and their policy was to increase expenditure in health, education and welfare provision. However since the inception of the Coalition government in 2010 public spending has been controlled.  Indeed, reductions in public spending and withdrawal of mainstream social-welfare services responsible for addressing poverty, health and social inequalities, has contributed to the increase in youth warranting a criminal/youth justice measure. Young people are being drawn into crime-prevention programmes as a direct result of cut backs across the social-welfare services.

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 (See Creaney 2012a, 2012b).

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.

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. These approaches tailor interventions to the child’s specific individual needs and abilities rather than their deficits or risky behaviours. For example the Community Space Challenge, led by charity Catch22, operates in 70 of the most deprived areas in England. The programme works with young people who are ‘at risk’ of achieving poor outcomes.  Rather than focusing on negative aspects of young people’s lives, however, a welfare approach is advocated. The approach is concerned with building strengths and aspirations. Frances Done (Chair of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales) recently praised this project for its success in improving the lives of many disadvantaged young people. 

The Minority Report style of predicting future offending behaviour seems set to continue as it is apparently simplistic and common sense. Intervening early in a young person’s life can prevent problems from escalating and can be cost-effective. But treating young people as “crime-prone” and “pre-criminal” ignores the principle at the heart of our justice system: innocent until proven guilty. 


A strengths-led approach to youth justice, pic courtesy of Catch22


A version of this article has been published by Crime Talk

See also Creaney, S. (2012a) Targeting, Labelling and Stigma: Challenging the Criminalsiation of Children and Young People,Criminal Justice Matters, Vol. 89, 1, pp. 16-17.

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

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