The current generation of young people is taking the brunt of the recession with all its devastating implications for their future life chances. Young adults (those aged 18-24) are being held back by the lack of jobs, housing and income that provide the basis for independent adulthood and starting up families of their own. The average age for obtaining a mortgage is now 33 and young women are, on average, postponing childbirth until they are close to 30. All of this delays maturity and responsibility and stops young people from growing out of crime.
Today’s young adults are more like yesterday’s juveniles: still testing boundaries and questioning authority well into their twenties and committing the kinds of offences more commonly associated with teenagers. But they pay for it too. Whereas the number of juveniles entering the criminal justice system has plummeted in recent years, young adults represent more than a third of those entering the criminal justice system even though they only commit a quarter of all crime. The criminal law treats every 18 year old as a fully responsible adult and with one or two notable exceptions, such as the sentencing guidelines and the Crown Prosecution Service’s Code of Practice, criminal justice agencies make no allowance for the variable and developing maturity of young adults. At the same time, they are treated as “less than adults” when it comes to housing benefits or the minimum wage. This must surely be in breach of the government’s commitment to deliver social justice.
So where do the police fit into all this? Well unfortunately they do little if anything to help. Based on a small study on the policing of young adults, we found that the police perceive and treat young adults as suspects in need of control rather than potential victims in need of protection. Faced with performance targets for stops and arrests, young adults who spend much of their time in public places are relatively easy prey, replacing juveniles as the new “low hanging fruit”.
For a small minority, particularly black and Asian young men, the police are seen as the enemy. Little has changed for them since Lord Scarman reported on the Brixton riots over 30 years ago. Young black men are still much more likely to be stopped and searched than their white counterparts. Encounters with the police are still fraught with risk. Another Brixton cannot be discounted. And yet it could all be different.
From our study it is evident that better trained, better-supervised officers who learn to use their discretion and their interpersonal skills to greater effect could make a big difference. Sometimes softer skills really do produce better outcomes: treating young adults fairly and with respect; explaining why they are being stopped and searched; politely thanking them for their cooperation; and moving away from a default position that sees arrest and charge as the only way of enforcing compliance. These would all help to improve relations between police and young adults, reduce the flow (and the expense that goes with it) into the criminal justice system and maybe even deliver social justice for this heavily burdened generation. With recruitment at a standstill and the average age of officers increasing, there is an opportunity here to do more with less. Politicians looking for cheap but effective policies take note.