The desire to provide for families who are struggling financially is driving young men to get involved in drug crime, a new study from Goldsmiths, University of London has found.
Dr Naomi Thompson’s research with young offenders and at-risk youth challenges the perception of a ‘culture of entitlement’, greed, laziness or irresponsibility which has distorted our understanding of why young people offend.
Through interviews with 19 London-based teenagers aged 13-17 and dozens of London and Liverpool professionals in youth and social care, policing, and probation, Dr Thompson identified a number of themes in why young people offend and how they believe the path to offending can be avoided.
In a report published in the journal Youth Justice, Dr Thompson argues that motivation and routes into organised crime are varied and complex, but in a climate of austerity and unemployment, a belief dominated among young men that they should provide for their families.
Most interview participants who had convictions stated that their own involvement with drug running was, at least in part, driven by a feeling of responsibility that they must bring money into the home. Yet the fear of a negative potential impact on families, including murder, injury, or siblings also ending up involved in drug running was cited by all young people as a factor in them not wanting to become involved in organised crime.
Among the young people interviewed there was overwhelming enthusiasm for initiatives such as community music projects, which are seen as a way to beat boredom, a way of expressing themselves and a means of building confidence and aspirations.
In order to leave organised crime, the most concrete suggestions from young people focused on employment and education opportunities, although they recognised a need for support to achieve this outcome. There was a clear desire from study participants to have professional role models who appeared to be ‘on their side’, with offenders unanimously praising their youth worker for helping them change.
Dr Thompson said: “There are a huge number of reasons why young people turn to crime, from peer pressure to low self-esteem to seeking status in their area. But by and large the young people involved with this study didn’t cite selfish reasons for their involvement with crime, but a desire to help out their families by providing extra money. Their sense is that there are few alternative opportunities available to them and that a stable and comfortable financial future through legitimate routes remains elusive.
“It’s clear that they don’t get involved in drug running through one big choice or a single dilemma moment. Their involvement is initiated subtly and can then intensify over time. For example, one 13-year-old girl was asked by an older man to ‘walk with me like you’re my sister for a minute’. It is only afterward that she realised she was acting as a form of protection for him and had essentially taken a first step into active participation.
“Our findings show that teenagers need positive, long-term, steady support. Preventative interventions have to recognise the blurred line between young people as perpetrators and young people as exploited, as well as highlighting the impact of crime on the families young people are so often seeking to provide for.”
Dr Thompson concludes that the findings of her small-scale study show that there is a clear need for further empirical research on young people and organised crime in the UK and more widely – with offenders and at-risk youth at its core, in order to understand authentic lived experiences.
'It’s a no-win scenario, either the police or the gang will get you': Young people and organised crime – vulnerable or criminal? by Dr Naomi Thompson was published in Youth Justice on Thursday 25 April 2019.