Don’t Whack Them Mate. It Actually Makes Youth Crime Worse

Jess Berentson-ShawTax and Welfare

The chair of the National Party’s Kaikohe branch, Alan Price, has advocated for physical punishment as a solution to some pretty grim stuff that Northland has to put up with.

Northland is a low-income area in New Zealand. It has a high youth unemployment rate, high rates of childhood disease, low educational attainment, and loads of other statistics that can make it a hard place to grow up. Crime, notably youth crime, is a bit of an issue for a community that has many bright spots and loads of potential.

However, Alan Price’s solution, like a lot of other off-the-cuff, school of hard knocks, “non PC” solutions to youth crime, is an appeal to the worst type of anti-science populism. These types of approaches to youth crime, ones that advocate physical punishment and scare tactics, actually make kids more likely to engage in crime. It is not just that it doesn’t work – it actually makes it worse. Not what we in the policy trade call a ‘good investment’.

It is all about Modelling

In Pennies from heaven – our research on what improves outcomes for struggling children in New Zealand – we took a good hard look at various criminal justice interventions for children and youth. (All references to research I discuss can be found in the book.)

We know that kids from low-income families, who live in the pressure cooker of poverty, are more likely to be both the victims of crime and engage more frequently in crime. There are a number of reasons for this: they may experience some of the long-term developmental issues associated with growing up in poverty; the stress of being poor can also place a tax on decision making; and kids from low income families with fewer opportunities tend to be less engaged in the educational system, and don’t do as well.

Modelling is a concept in which we understand that what children observe and experience is how they learn to behave and interact with the world as they grow. Children who grow up poor are slightly more likely to experience physical aggression and violent behaviours and to see it around them, so it can become a normalised behaviour.

You begin to get an inkling then, that exposing these children to either more violence and aggression (from school as Alan Price suggests, or other external agencies), or others’ behaviours associated with crime, runs counter to how human development and psychology works.

If we model the behaviour we DON’T want then we make it worse

Programmes that attempt to prevent ‘at-risk’ youth offending through exposure to the behaviors associated with crime and the consequences of crime only serve to increase youth offending.

Children who visit prisons for example as a form of ‘scaring them out of the crime’ are simply being given greater exposure to prison environments. The research shows they tend to commit more crime as a result of their experiences. Programmes such as the Scared Straight prison-visiting programme actually increase delinquency and offending behavior relative to doing nothing.

Not surprisingly, it has been determined that young people who are at risk of becoming involved in criminal behaviors (in youth gangs, for example) have more negative thinking, and lower self-confidence than children and youth who are not deemed to be at risk. Reinforcing negative thinking and punishing children with physical violence is not going to address this issue. These kids don’t need to see and experience more of the same; they need something different, and they deserve something that works.

Let’s talk about what we value for these kids and value in society

No-one wants kids smashing in front windows of shops, smoking cannabis or worse, and generally going nowhere in life. What we do all want is for young people to be nurtured as children, supported and experience a fair opportunity to participate in society. We want young people that can explore their potential and eventually get to use that potential. That leads us to consider two things: (1) reducing the crime committed by ‘at risk’ children; and (2) considering what works to take away the risk altogether.

Reducing the crime committed by ‘at risk’ children

A systematic review of offending prevention programmes for 12- to 17-year-olds worldwide concluded that programmes that focus on the offending environment, and not the individual, are most effective. That is, successful programmes are those that address the social and resourcing issues over a long period of time. No surprises there.

One example of overseas programmes that show promise is a school-based programme that focuses on parental education, teacher training, and training in how to manage and have positive social interactions for school-aged children living in high-crime communities.

Generally though, the body of evidence regarding how to prevent youth crime in children at greater risk of committing it is not overwhelmingly positive, with much evidence missing in terms of both effectiveness and cost-effectiveness.

Alternative youth justice systems

In New Zealand, best evidence shows that for all ages, restorative justice programmes that use face-to-face conferencing between victims and offenders are more effective than normal criminal processes in reducing rates of future offending and increasing victim satisfaction. The evidence is a little less clear for youth, and this may have something to do with the emotional maturity of young people to participate meaningfully in such processes. New Zealand has also implemented for youth the Marae-Based Youth Courts (MBYC, or Te Kooti Rangatahi). Te Kooti Rangatahi work within the same legal context as the non-marae-based youth court, but the court sits on marae and utilises uses tikanga Māori.

While, the evidence for the effectiveness of alternative justice systems for youth remains a little unclear, it is certainly a step up from putting young people through the mainstream system, which leads to very poor outcomes. We need to focus efforts on getting the information we need from these approaches.

What about preventing youth crime: removing the increased risk for some?

Here we focus on the policy of cash without strings being the most powerful tool to improve children’s lives – the main conclusion of our research. As we have discussed previously, increasing the incomes of families with unconditional cash (i.e. we don’t tell them how to spend it or make it conditional on them doing anything to get it) reduces low-income children’s involvement in the criminal justice system. Cash also reduces parent’s involvement in the criminal justice system. Cash improves the relationship between children and parents – there is less aggression and children feel closer to their parents. Parents start to model for their children the types of behaviours that we want children to engage in – not the ones we don’t want. Alongside the reductions in crime we see improvements in parental mental health, children’s educational attainment and aspects of their health and mental wellbeing. Maltreatment of children is also reduced.

Again, we can understand this effect through psychology – notably the psychology of being under financial pressure. Being poor makes life very stressful, and stressed parents struggle to give their children everything they need to thrive. All of us under stress experience a sort of tax on our complex decision-making processes. We call this the ‘cognitive bandwidth’ effect. We all have a mental bandwidth to make complex decisions, and under stress, notably poverty-related stress, the bandwidth is seriously limited. Cash lifts the stress, allowing parents freedom to do what comes naturally to most – to look after their kids and themselves. You can read more about the research here.

In conclusion, don’t drink the kool-aid. If we value meaningful and productive lives for children, then we need to do what works for them and not engage in a Victorian-era discussion about beating the daylights out of kids. We made that illegal for a very good reason.

Don’t Whack Them Mate. It Actually Makes Youth Crime Worse was last modified: March 20th, 2017 by Jess Berentson-Shaw
About the Author

Jess Berentson-Shaw

Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw is a science researcher working for the Morgan Foundation. Jess holds a PhD in Health Psychology from Victoria University. Jess has over 10 years’ experience working on applying science and evidence to public policy. She worked on improving the use of science in public health practice in NZ, before working as a Research Fellow at University College in London, where she researched how doctors and clinicians translate scientific evidence into their clinical practice. While in the UK she also developed a national data collection system, which was used to determine what factors contribute to poor outcomes for women and babies during pregnancy and birth. On her return to New Zealand she directed a research group that specialised in the independent evaluation and application of research and science to health policy and practice. Jess loves science and what it can do to make the world a fairer place.