Riot crackdown focuses on teenage gangs

After the summer riots in English cities, ministers are seeking solutions for antisocial behaviour and crime. Gang culture is their latest target.

Since law and order went up in flames in the riots in English cities, UK policymakers have been scratching their heads about how to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour by young people. Now the government’s spotlight has fallen on gangs – both as a source of problems and as a possible way to target those likely to get in trouble.

Just one in ten of those arrested during August’s riots were found to have belonged to a gang in most areas, although in London the figure was 19% and there were a few confirmed incidents of organised, orchestrated gang violence and looting. But gang culture is perceived as a growing menace in British cities. Gang members are much more likely to be involved in antisocial behaviour, drug use and violent crime, and are held largely responsible for London’s epidemic of fatal stabbings of teenagers.

Yesterday, Home Secretary Theresa May announced a new strategy that will combine tough measures with greater support for those young people who want to improve their lives: rehousing them in new areas, for example. Gang members will be subject to injunctions to bar them from contact with certain people or places. And sentencing will be tougher, including a possible life sentence for gun trafficking.

The proposals are ambitious, targeting 30 ‘hotspot’ areas of gang activity with input from a panel of 100 experts. To keep teens away from a life of violence, youth services, schools and the police will work together to identify those at risk of joining gangs. Even if they have personally committed no crime, gang members could be required to meet victims and talk to professionals who work in the criminal justice system, to be made aware of the potential consequences of their behaviour.

Experts believe many of the young people who join gangs do so because they lack a structured, safe and supportive home environment or law-abiding role models, so May’s strategy will also focus on younger children and new mothers.

Is respect mutual?

Can middle-aged Home Secretaries really change young people’s lives or even understand the issues they face on the streets? Gang culture and the violence it encourages is based on status and earning respect through fear. Some say lectures from out-of-touch authority figures like politicians, the police and judges will only create more resentment and mistrust.

Such a view may be unfair to gang members as well as politicians. Individuals whose lives have gone down a destructive and dangerous path may want a way out of their lifestyles, and support offered by the state to make a fresh start might be welcome. After all, they know that otherwise they might end up dead, wounded, or in prison.

You Decide

  1. What are the major causes of gang violence as you understand it? Would you ever be attracted to gang life or vulnerable to pressure to join?
  2. Official statistics show that a quarter of those arrested during the riots were aged 10-17 and 46% were between 18 and 24. But do you think young people are being blamed unfairly?

Activities

  1. Conduct a survey on experiences of crime among people you know. How have young people, and older people, been affected by illegal activity? What are they most scared of and are their fears realistic when you compare them to your research on the crime figures?
  2. Devise a programme that you think could have a genuine impact on youth crime. What interventions do you think could offer a real alternative to gangs?

Some People Say...

“Young people get blamed for all society's problems.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How will authorities identify the most 'at risk' young people?
Medical staff could be made responsible for measuring how many young people come in to hospital with stab wounds or other gang-related injuries. Youth workers would be on hand to identify them as involved in gang culture and offer help.
Are there any particular groups that will be targeted?
The strategy aims to help young women and girls, who May says are often exposed to sexual violence through gangs. Girls who are the partners of gang members risk becoming victims of 'revenge rapes' by rival gangs.
What is being done to support these girls?
Some of the £1.2m for the gang strategy will be spent on counselling for young women. But there will be costs elsewhere in the system if jail sentences are longer.

Word Watch

Gang
A group of young people united by close ties of allegiance, and often in opposition to other gangs. The association is usually linked with antisocial and criminal behaviour and violence. Gang activities have the objective of obtaining money illegally and claiming or defending territory.
Home Secretary
Theresa May is the UK's Home Secretary. This cabinet position has responsibility for and overview of all issues to do with crime, policing, immigration and wider issues of public order. In other countries the equivalent position is usually called interior minister. The Home Office is no longer responsible for the courts and criminal justice, which since 2007 has been run by the Ministry of Justice.
Injunction
A court order that prevents someone from doing specified things, meeting certain people or going to certain places.

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