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Young criminals can be turned around


Dr Claire Nee

Dr Claire Nee

Wayward youngsters could have their criminal tendencies nipped in the bud if more time was devoted to intervening early, according to new research.

Forensic psychologists at the University of Portsmouth studied what impact intensive long-term intervention had on children aged from seven who were spiralling into a life of crime.

They found the number of crimes committed by youngsters dropped from an average three crimes a year to one for those who were supported, and rose to an average six crimes a year for those who were not supported.

The study is one of just two worldwide to date which has shown compelling evidence of what works with pre-teenage offenders. Despite the indications that personalised support can have a dramatic effect on reducing crime, the programme which was studied has since been dropped.

In a study over two years, Dr Claire Nee and colleagues found there was clear and sustained improvement in most of the key measures of criminality if treatment and training was tailored to the offenders’ needs.

Dr Nee said: “Until now, very little was known about what reduces their risk of offending.

“Our results show a significant and sustained reduction in criminality among the young when individual characteristics, such as ability to learn, motivation and personality traits, are taken as seriously as assessing the risk they pose and their most basic needs.

“Children as young as seven are a small slice of the offending population as a whole, but we know that those who commit crimes when very young are tomorrow’s most serious, violent and prolific law-breakers.”

Research shows the younger you intervene with offenders, the more likely you will be able to prevent them continuing a life of crime, she said.

“Intervening early is money well spent. It is awful that despite its success, the project we studied has since been cut due to austerity measures. It had been going since 1999 and helped thousands of young kids from Portsmouth.”

The study is published in the International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology.

It found that of the three methods understood across the English speaking world to provide the best long-term rehabilitation of offenders – assessing the risk they pose, assessing the offenders’ needs in order to not re-offend and responsivity, tailoring interventions to the individual – it is responsivity that is most likely to be sacrificed (because it is expensive) and yet may be the key to bringing about the greatest change.

Dr Nee said: “Taking into account a very young offender’s intelligence, problem-solving skills and their personality does reduce crime. It taps into the basic human goal of a good life and by highlighting the strengths a person has for achieving that goal.

“Even though it is a complex process and potentially expensive in comparison to assessing just the risk they might pose, our results demonstrate the importance of keeping responsivity firmly at the centre when designing offender interventions. Long term this will substantially cut the costs of repeatedly dealing with these young people in the criminal justice system.”

The researchers compared 67 young people with an average age of 13 who took part in a long-term Preventing Youth Offending Programme, with a comparison group of 24 youngsters who did not take part. The study followed the participants for six months and some were followed for up to two years.

All 91 youngsters were prolific offenders, all but four were male, most were white, 90 per cent had been excluded from school and the group had high levels of local authority care, alcohol and drug abuse and inclusion on the Child Protection Register. Their crimes ranged from property crime through to assault, armed robbery and arson.

The programme included one-to-one mentoring, help and support for returning to school and constructive use of their time, anger management, victim awareness, substance misuse interventions, guidance on appropriate sexual behaviour and health advice.

Dr Nee said: “Pre-teen and early adolescent offenders are a rare and difficult-to-reach group which is consequently under-researched.

”Until now there has been a significant gap in knowledge and understanding about what works and what doesn’t for this group – not only about what works but also why and how.”

The results showed after six months’ of tailored help, children engaged in constructive recreation, had a better attitude to education, were becoming less criminal in terms of their attitudes, had fewer family, emotional and financial problems, had fewer criminal friends, had more secure and stable accommodation and used less drugs or alcohol. Alongside this their risk score as measured on the standard measure for adults, dropped four points from an average of 20 (the average score for adult male prisoners) to 16 and this improved further for those who stayed with the project longer.

There was also a notable drop in police charges against those taking part in the programme over the first six months compared to those who were not and this drop was sustained and improved upon up to two years later.

Those in the control group who did not have the tailored help saw their risk scores rise and they continued to offend.

Dr Nee said that in the mainstream adult offender model of rehabilitation, only specific ‘criminogenic’ needs are considered, including accommodation, relationship needs, education and substance misuse.  In this study, the 67 children on the intervention programme had their criminogenic and non-criminogenic needs addressed.

Dr Nee said: “Researchers on adults say it’s not effective to address non-criminogenic needs, but our work suggests you should with children, and other recent work on female offenders and sex offenders suggests the same.

“There’s been a very one-size-fits-all approach to adult offender programmes and the programme we studied is the total opposite, tailoring provision to all the different things an individual child needs.”

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