Youth justice in the UK: children, young people and crime
Youth justice in the UK: children, young people and crime

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Youth justice in the UK: children, young people and crime

1 Poverty and class disadvantage

Poverty and class-based inequality influence a young person’s physical and mental health, their educational prospects and their chances of employment. In the UK, as elsewhere, social classes are separated by inequalities of wealth and income. These, in turn, impact on the likelihood of a child or young person becoming a victim or a perpetrator of crime. Poverty is not a passive, background issue but an aggressive one that actively steers children and young people towards personally limiting and socially destructive outcomes.

In the UK in 2017–18:

  • an estimated 14.3 million people lived in poverty
  • one in every 100 children were homeless at any one time
  • £6 billion was cut from social care
  • 5.4 million people earned below the living wage (£9.30 per hour in 2019).

In 2014, 15,000 people died because they couldn’t afford to heat their homes (Cooper and Whyte, 2017).

All too often interventions are focused on the children and young people who are poor, rather than focused on the poverty that generates the need for intervention. The children and young people come to be seen as the problem, not the poverty. Although the intentions of such interventions are usually well-meaning and benign, their effect is to generate and reinforce ideas about working class children and young people as objects of policy, unfortunately requiring help and guidance to help them live within their ‘narrow’ means. They are seen as ‘problems’, deficient in various ways, dependent on financial support, a liability to the economy and a potential threat to the stability of society.

The relentless focus on the behaviour and apparent ‘immorality’ of working class children and young people is a constant feature of British history (Pearson, 1983). They are sometimes referred to as ‘the criminal classes’ but the evidence from criminological research is that all occupational groups, all social classes commit crime. Some argue that ‘most serious crimes … can be located in power, not weakness, in privilege not disadvantage, in wealth not poverty’ (Box, 1983, p. 3).

Children, because they are young and relatively powerless, often bear the brunt of the effects of poverty. Growing up poor means you are more likely to suffer debilitating health conditions. Low birth weight, developmental delay, obesity, mental health difficulties, physical injury, teenage pregnancy, acute respiratory infection, and poor linear growth are pervasive, cumulative in effect and life limiting in outcome. A study by the Youth Justice Trust discovered that 90 per cent of the Youth Offending Team case files on young people in their survey had ‘significant experience of loss or bereavement, or the onset of mental illness or physical disability for a parent’ (YJT, 2003). Since then there has been slowly increasing recognition that young people’s experiences of grief, trauma, loss and distress need to be more widely acknowledged. The next two activities offer you an insight into this.

Activity 1 Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes for this activity

Watch the following video which was developed to raise awareness of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and their potential to propel children into criminal justice systems.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 1
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Transcript: Video 1


This is one person’s story of how adverse childhood experiences affected their life.

My parents don't understand all the drinking and fighting means I'm scared. I'd like a cuddle, perhaps a bedtime story. But mostly, I'd like them to stop shouting at me. And sometimes they hit me. Feeling scared every day and not feeling loved or wanted will change me for the rest of my life.
Later, I'll have problems at school, problems with alcohol, and I'll get in trouble with the police. What's happening to me right now means I'm more likely to have serious health problems in middle age and die sooner than I should.


Adverse Childhood Experiences are traumatic events that can have negative, lasting effects on health and behaviour.

ACEs including being physically, emotionally or sexually abused as a child and growing up in a house with domestic violence, mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse or criminal problems.

Doctors say my life is full of adverse childhood experiences or ACEs. But in my world, this means I see my dad hitting my mum. Dad's got a drinking problem, and mum's always crying even with the tablets. I am always being shouted at and hit. After the booze and fags, there's not a lot of money for toys or clothes or even food. I'm getting used to being scared all the time. Now I'm just angry.
Doctors say things are changing inside me. My brain isn't learning how to control my feelings properly. My body can't relax like those kids who don't have ACEs. So my body won't be able to repair itself properly when I get older. Making it more likely I'll get cancer or heart disease as an adult. It hurts when my parents hit me. But the real damage is hidden, and that damage will be with me for life.


Children who have abusive or otherwise stress-filled childhoods are more likely to develop heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other health and social problems throughout their adult life.

How I coped with ACEs as a teenager.

I drink and smoke. They say I'm out a control but I'm not. It's just my way of coping with my ACEs. I've been in plenty of fights but what's wrong with that. Kids punches don't hurt half as much as when my dad hits me. I beat up a kid last week at school because he looked at me weird. Who cares?
I ended up with more time out at school. Learning is not for me anyway and the teachers don't care anymore than my parents. I don't like the way anyone looks at me except my girl. She's 16 and pregnant just like my mum was with me.
So this is where I've ended up. I've got diabetes and cancer is probably on the way. I know these kill you, but I couldn't do without them. I've never had a proper job, and I've spent time inside. I hit my kids. I hit their mum too until she left so my kids have grown up with ACEs.
And now, my daughter had her first kid. She's 16. The course of my life was set in the wrong direction a long time ago. I know where I'm heading and sadly, I know where my kids are heading too.
This doesn't have to happen. A little help in childhood makes a big difference to where life takes you. When I was a baby, the nurses noticed that my mum wasn't coping, and helped her and explained how important my childhood is to the rest of my life. So with a bit of help, she coped.
The police came around after next door complained about the noise from mum and dad fighting. They asked how I was feeling. I told them I was scared all the time. Mum and dad got help. The shouting got better and the hitting stopped. I even got some bedtime stories. I still had problems at school, but the teacher asked me about what was happening at home. I got help controlling my feelings. It wasn't a lot, but it was enough.
I'm now married with two children. And I've got a job, most of the time. I haven't repeated the same problems with my kids. We got help when being a parent got too much. Our children are ACE free, and that means their kids stand a good chance of growing up ACE free as well.
Almost half the people in England and Wales experience one ACE as a child. And one in 10 of us suffered four or more ACEs. If we stop ACEs, millions of children would not become smokers or binge drinkers. And levels of violence in adults would be cut in half.
Fewer ACEs in childhood also means fewer adults developing diseases like cancer, heart disease, and diabetes in middle age. We all need to be ACE aware. Are you? Doctors, police, nurses, teachers, firefighters, and most importantly parents. The more you know about ACEs, the more you can help stop children growing up with ACEs in their lives. And for those of you who have already suffered ACEs, the more you know, the more you can help yourself, and others who have suffered ACEs cope.
End transcript: Video 1
Video 1
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The video draws from a wide body of evidence about children’s health and wellbeing. It takes a life-course perspective favoured by health professionals and neatly contrasts the possibilities and consequences of different interventions.

The next activity provides some further insights into how the trauma-informed approach is taking shape in youth justice.

Activity 2 Trauma-informed youth justice

Timing: Allow approximately 25 minutes for this activity

Read the ‘In Brief’ (first two-pages) of the guide to trauma-informed practice in youth justice produced for practitioners by the Youth Justice Board.

Summary of trauma-informed youth justice [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

When you’ve finished, make a note of two things you feel you’ve learned from reading the summary.

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One of the strongest messages to come over in the briefing is that trauma is cumulative and compounding. The more trauma there is, and the longer it is endured, the worse the outcomes are likely to be.

You might have noted the two possible aspects of the way the effects of trauma can manifest: internal and external. The development of Enhanced Case Management (ECM) is an approach that has been adopted in youth offending teams in Wales because it facilitates a comprehensive multi-agency response to the complexities of trauma.


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