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Title Adolescence and Crime
Author Sean Harte
Key Concepts Oppression, Anti-oppressive Practice, Social Sciences



“Why does, in contemporary society, adolescence appear to be the `peak age` for criminal behaviour?”

“The commonly held (adultist) views about adolescents are that they pose a threat to society rather than the other way round … it is important at least to redress this imbalance … for this approach is both ethical (self-evident) and practical, to avoid alienation of future generations.”

 (Corby, 1997: 215)

Any explanation of youthful behaviour at a given period in time must take into account not only social and economic structures but previous historical experiences of this age group, as an independent variable with its own dynamic force (Gillis, 1974). A retrospective view of adolescence and criminal behaviour can elucidate much relevant understanding towards contemporary portrayals of youthful behaviour and it is for this reason that a historical perspective will pervade the modern theme of this essay.

It will be shown that the claim of adolescence being the peak age for criminal behaviour is problematic on many levels. The focus, however, will centre upon the social and political significance developed from the historical definition of adolescence, and the consequent notions attached to adolescent behaviour. Through an exploration of adolescent’s criminal actions and the discovery of adolescence, a theory of understanding youth will be proposed. That is, it will be argued that the critical factor in understanding the criminal behaviour of adolescents is in understanding the social construction of theories of adolescence.

Throughout this essay the implications of a theoretical understanding of the adolescent’s plight in society are considered. This understanding is subsequently applied to the practice of youth work and thus a framework for positive action for, and on behalf of young people is constructed from the theoretical basis of this knowledge.

Adolescence and Criminal Behaviour

There are a whole series of problems in any study of deviant behaviour, in the recording of crime, in what is recorded and what is excluded, in what is reported and unreported. Crucially, all those who break the law are not detected and convicted (Walker, 1995, Muncie, 1999). Collectively, this plethora of difficulties makes the topic too complex and nebulous to discuss here in detail. Suffice to say, the true facts about offending by young people or any other group have been and will remain unknowable (Muncie, 1999).

Consequently this essay shall focus upon the reasons for the perception of adolescence as the peak age for criminal behaviour, beginning with an analysis of young people’s recorded offending behaviour.

The perception of crime as a problem of the young might appear to be substantiated by statistics, showing that 45% of recorded crime is committed by young people under the age of 21 (Bailey, 1997). Home Office research shows that one in two males and one in three females between 14 and 25 admit to having committed an offence, further more 1996 statistics show that 10-17 year olds account for 25% of known offenders (Home Office, 1997). Whilst crime statistics are renowned for unreliability, their existence nevertheless informs contemporary thinking on offending behaviour.

Participation in crime by adolescents is not linear across all groups, in fact quite the contrary. Empirical statistical evidence shows that ethnic minority and working class youth are disproportionately represented in crime statistics and within the juvenile justice system Pitts, 1986, 1988; Hood, 1992). This phenomenon may be partially explained by different behaviour from these groups, but a more appropriate explanation can be provided in social stereotype association. Essentially it is argued that girls and boys portraying the same behaviour will often be treated very differently because of their social stereotypes. For example girls acting aggressively will usually be perceived as less threatening than aggressive males. Similar differences are also true of black and white youth, and middle and working-class youth. This will of course impinge upon whether they become involved with the youth justice system, and if so how they are treated within it (Hood, 1992; Heidensohn, 1996).

Although we can observe relatively high instances of criminal behaviour by young people, we can see that these crimes are made up largely of less serious offences (Muncie, 1999, West, 1967). Moreover studies elucidate that `for most offenders liability to convictions is a passing phase of youth … the boy who goes on to become a persistent recidivist all his life is exceptional in the extreme, and in all probability differently constituted and motivated from the ordinary juvenile delinquent` (West, 1967: 29). Teasdale and Powel share this opinion and see crime as a temporary phenomenon in most young people’s lives (Teasdale and Powell, 1987). Indeed West argues that adolescent delinquent behaviour is paradoxically a `normal feature of youth`, whilst non-delinquent behaviour in adolescence is in itself deviant (West, 1967: 42).

Adolescents are bombarded with arbitrary decisions on what is acceptable and unacceptable based purely on their chronological age. Indeed some criminal offences are only so because of the perpetrators age, for example underage drinking or sexual intercourse. Driving a car under any circumstances is illegal until the age of 17. Other crimes that are perpetrated by adolescents can be directly or indirectly related to their socio-economic position.

Young people’s marginalized position within society can be held at least partially to blame for the reality or construction of adolescence as the peak age for crime. For example, high unemployment and lower wages make it difficult to be a success in a modern industrialised capitalist society, and this gives rise to further potential for younger people to resort to crime, to achieve status, power or financial gain.

Whilst the deviant norms of adolescence could be given as explanation for this `peak age` of criminality, especially if coupled with vindication based upon the less sophisticated crime of the youth being more liable for detection, superior explanation is provided by an historical and political analysis of the discovery and acceptance of the period now known as adolescence.

The Discovery of Adolescence

Notions of childhood and adolescence, as with other age determined categories are not unquestionable facts or truths, but are in essence socially constructed. The only truth is we are born, we grow older and we die (Brown, 1998). If boundaries between childhood and adulthood and appropriate behaviours attached there are not fixed, but socially produced and reinforced, adolescence must be analysed and interpreted for its historical and contemporary meaning.

Whilst childhood, since its relatively recent discovery, is viewed as a time of innocence and dependence, when protection and training are paramount, as autonomy develops, ` youth on the other hand, is contemporaneously expected to be an age of deviance, disruption and wickedness` (Brown, 1998: 3, original emphasis). This expectation, as we will see, is inextricably linked with the historical discovery of adolescence.

Many contemporary traditions of deviant youth, including gang behaviour and delinquency, can easily be traced back 200 years and further. Many commentators (Brown, 1998; Jenks, 1996; Hendrick, 1990a and 1990b; Gillis, 1974), follow Aries’s (1960) discourse, arguing that childhood and adolescence were `discovered` around the Victorian era and it is here that `adolescence itself was identified as a cause of delinquency` (Gillis, 1974: 171). Prior to this time little differentiation was made between children and adults, thus the problem of youth or adolescent offending could not exist.

The rapid growth of industrial capitalism in the early nineteenth century, coupled with the growing distinction between child and adult, led inevitably to fewer young people in the workplace. With more spare time, youths began grouping together on the streets of the new industrialised cities. Social commentators of the day had their own bourgeois conceptions of youthful behaviour and the onslaught and criminalisation of working class youth began as early as1815 with the creation of the Society For Investigating the Causes of the Alarming Increase of Juvenile Delinquency in the Metropolis (Pinchbeck and Hewitt, 1981; Muncie, 1999).

Hendrick discusses the emergence of the social and scientific term adolescence being created by the professional middle classes in accordance with the work of the Child-Study Movement and especially G. Stanley Hall (Hendrick, 1990b). The model presented by Hall describes adolescence as a biologically determined period of `storm and stress` in which instability and fluctuation were normal and to be expected (Hall, 1905 cited in Hendrick, 1990b).

This foundation for the contemporary notions of adolescence, as a problematic and turbulent period of transition, was based upon studies and observations of a very small cross-section of young people. The `unspontaneous, conformist and confident` youths of Hall’s `normal adolescent` demeanour was particularly linked with white middle class males. However this model was soon to be prescribed as desirable for all young people (Griffin, 1997: 19). We can thus trace the marginalisation of cross sections of young people, especially the working-class, girls and ethnic minority groups, as implicit within the construction of adolescence. The problem remains within contemporary adolescence.

Though Hall’s interpretation of adolescence was founded on biological notions, no definitive age could be placed upon this transitional phase, most importantly upon the completion of the transition, and adulthood. To accept a biological base for adolescence is simplistic and is not sustained by societal responses to adolescence. If adolescence was accepted as a biological notion, based upon age, then the incongruence shown in the biological framework and socially significant events would not be apparent (see Appendix 1.). This incongruence is exemplified in many ways for instance a young person may be sexually mature by the age of 13, not until sixteen can they legally have sexual intercourse with a consenting adult and thus become a parent, yet inexplicably, they can not drive a motorcar on a public road until they are seventeen years old (Coleman and Warren-Adamson, 1992).

The political significance of historical discourse on youth justice is important in understanding the contemporary view of adolescent offending. Throughout history we can find references to the escalating problems of youth crime (Pearson, 1983; West, 1967). Furthermore we can trace historical debates and discourses around the nature of youth crime and political solutions directly to similar contemporary political debates. Historical studies show us that fears about the rising trends in youth crime are replete through British social history. The present is continuously compared unfavourably with the halcyon days of the past, signalling a moral decline (Humphries, 1981, Pearson, 1983). Whilst these studies also inform the reader that this golden age where youth was unproblematic has never actually existed, this conclusion appears to have been omitted from general public and political discourse on youthful offending behaviour.

Young People as Victims of Crime

Statistics show that young people and young males in particular are also the main victims of crime, especially violent crime. Lea and Young’s research findings indicate that young people between the age of sixteen and nineteen are the most likely victims of recorded crime (Lea and Young, 1984). However, this group is not perceived as vulnerable by the public, or indeed in political legislation. Whilst the findings of the British Crime Survey (1996) indicated that `elderly people are less at risk from crime than young people … It is young men who are most at risk of assault and robbery` (cited by Cardy, 1995: 22), the public perception of crime is one of uncontrollable young thugs and hooligans perpetrating crimes against the elderly or other vulnerable individuals.

The erratic twists and turns in the politics, policy and practice of youth justice has had little to do with the changing shape of youth crime, but can be directly related to governmental attempts to manage tensions between political ideology, economic reality and the desire to be re-elected. Thus the issue of youth crime has often occupied the centre of the political stage (Pitts, 1999). As an example, although the issue of children who kill is an important one, child killers are heavily overindulged in the media and politics. Whilst statistics inform us that it is a particularly rare event for a young person to commit murder (Cadavino, 1996), the cases of Mary Bell, and Venables and Thompson `the Bulger Killers`, are deemed almost constantly newsworthy, and have fuelled the call for tougher and more coordinated youth justice strategic policy.

Despite the fact that crimes are redefined through time, the plight of the youth in society is rarely politically considered. Conversely youths are becoming more and more victimised within a contemporary system as criminal law engulfs their behaviour. What may have been considered childish exuberance a few years ago, may now be cited as criminal damage. Whilst congregating in a group is normal for most factions of society, it is considered anti-social behaviour for young people, and curfews may be imposed. Perhaps the almost unnoticed subtle redefining of the application of the doctrine of doli incapax (Penal Affairs Consortium, 1995) signals major victory in the war between societal perceptions and the realities of youth.

Consequences and Implications For Youth Work

Interestingly the emergence of adolescence as a concept, and the creation of youth work can be traced along similar historical paths. Early social reformer’s believed that `signs of criminality … if picked up early enough could be treated and even cured, but this required constant vigilance and complete control over the age group in question` (Gillis, 1974: 171). At around the same time, youth strategies were implemented to regulate the leisure time of working-class youth and build moral character (Leicester and Farndale, 1967). Perhaps without the perception of youth and adolescence as a period of problematic transition, youth work would not exist today. Indeed much current opinion and debate around the role and nature of youth work originates from this historical perspective, such as their role in modern strategies like Youth Offender Teams and Connexions.

Due to the portrayal of youth as demons and a threat to the social fabric, by politicians and the media, the problem of crime faced by young people has been mostly neglected and forgotten. Furthermore, popular perception dictates that crime `is predominantly a problem of young males from lower social class and ethnic minority communities` (Muncie, 1999: 23). This public and political perception creates problems for young people and until challenged will continue to do so. As youth workers it is our duty to confront these assumptions and attempt to redress the balance. By accepting common sense notions of youth and crime we exacerbate the problem, when as advocates for young people we should be challenging the classic portrayal of adolescence for the class, race and sex biased social construct that it is. The more we accept youth justice oriented work the more we are complicit in the demonisation of youth.

Youth work should concentrate more on working with the young victims of crime and thus increasing the public awareness of this issue. As Anderson, Kinsey, et al. explain `criminal victimisation is part of young people’s lives which remains largely hidden from the adult world, that is both from parents and from the police` (Anderson, Kinsey, et al., 1994: 35). Perhaps in raising adult awareness of youth’s position as the victims as well as the perpetrators of crime, youth workers can assist in redefining the contemporary concepts of youth and adolescence. More importantly perhaps, the youth worker can assist in a political transition and modernisation of juvenile justice policy, coordinating social policy to assist young people’s transition into adulthood, rather than hindering it.


Even by briefly tracing some of the important aspects of discourses on adolescence and youth politically and historically, we can begin to see a demonstrative dissonance between adult conceptions of youth and the real life experiences of young people.

Youth in general, and youth crime in particular, is and will continue to be `a constant source of fascination and concern for politicians, media commentators and academic analysts` (Muncie, 1999: 2). Moreover, with this fascination in youth crime the social microscope constantly refocuses on adolescent offending behaviour, and it is this fascination which is causal in historical and political views of criminal adolescence. The continued fascination is indeed more significant than actual adolescent behaviours. However, whilst an objective scientist may discover new theories, it unlikely that new light will be shed upon the adolescent crime phenomenon, for the very concept of adolescence has created a general demonisation of youth.

Adding to the biological and emotional problems faced by young people in contemporary British society are cultural contradictions created by adults for the protection and control of young people. These contradictions, far from assisting in the adolescent’s transition from child to adult, are likely to compound their identity confusion and exacerbate their period of storm and stress. Whilst it is true that many, if not the majority of adolescents will show some element of what adults term `deviant` or `delinquent` behaviour, perhaps this is normal adolescent behaviour. If this is so, why is society repeatedly shocked by the adolescent’s antics, and why is it so quick to label these acts and their perpetrators as criminal? Society must show more understanding and consideration towards its future generation.

`Fear of crime has become increasingly used as an indicator of how pervasive the problem of crime is, or at least how concerned the public is about it` (Mirrlees-Black et al., 1996: 49). Couple this with a fear of adolescence, of youthful behaviour in moral decay and out of control, and it is unlikely that adolescence will ever be viewed as anything other than a `peak age` for criminal behaviour and a major political cause for concern.

© Student Youth Work Online 1999-2001. Please always reference the author of this page.

References & Recommended Reading

Anderson, S., Kinsey, R., Loader, I. And Smith, C. (1994) Cautionary Tales: Young People, Crime and Policing In Edinburgh Aldershot: Avebury

Aries, P. (1973) Centuries of Childhood Harmondsworth: Penguin

Bailey, A. (1997) `Direct Action! Positive Responses To Crime`, in Garratt, D., Roche, J. and Tucker, S. (eds) Changing Experiences of Youth London: Sage

Brown, S. (1998) Understanding Youth and Crime Buckingham: Open University Press

Cadavino, P. (1996) Children Who Kill Winchester: Waterside Press

Cardy, C. (1995) Training For Personal Safety At Work Aldershot: Gower

Coleman, J. C. and Warren-Adamson, C. (1992) Youth Policy in the 1990’s The Way Forward London: Routledge

Corby, B. (1997) `Mistreatment of Young People` in Roache, J and Tucker, S. (eds.) Youth In Society London: Sage

Gillis, G. R. (1974) Youth and History London: Academic Press Inc.

Griffin, C. (1997) `Representations of the Young` in Roache, J. and Tucker, S. (eds.) Youth In Society London: Sage

Hall, G. S. (1905) Adolescence, Its Psychology and its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education New York: Appleton

Heidensohn, F. (1996) ed. Women and Crime 2nd Edition Basingstoke: MacMillan

Hendrick, H. (1990a) `Constructions and reconstructions of British childhood: an interpretive study 1800 to the present`, in James, A. and Prout, A. (eds) Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood London: The Falmer Press

Hendrick, H. (1990b) Images of Youth: Age, Class and the Male Youth Problem 1880-1920 Oxford: Clarendon

Home Office (1997) No More Excuses – A New Approach To Takling Youth Crime In England and Wales London: Home Office Stationery Office

Hood, R. (1992) Race and Sentencing: A Study in the Crown Court Oxford: Clarendon

Humphries, S. (1981) Hooligans or Rebels? Oxford: Blackwell

Jenks, C. (1996) Childhood London: Routledge

Lea, J. and Young, J. (1984) What Is To Be Done About Law and Order? London: Penguin

Leicester, J. H. and Farndale, J. (1967) eds. Trends In The Services For Youth Oxford: Pergamon Press

Mirrlees-Black, C., Mayhew, P. and Percy, A. (1996) The British Crime Survey - England and Wales London: Home Office Research and Statistics Directorate

Muncie, J. (1999) Youth and Crime London: Sage

Pearson, G. (1983) Hooligan – A History of Respectable Fears London: Macmillan

Penal Affairs Consortium (1995) The Doctrine Of `Doli Incapax` London: Penal Affairs Consortium

Pinchbeck, I. And Hewitt, M. (1981) `Vagrancy and delinquency in an urban setting` in Fitzgerald, M., McLennan, G. and Pawson, J. Crime & Society – Readings In History and Theory London: Routledge &Kegan Paul/Open University Press

Pitts, J. (1986) `Black young people and juvenile crime: some unanswered questions` in Matthews, R and Young, J. (eds.) Confronting Crime London: Sage

Pitts, J. (1988) The Politics of Juvenile Crime London: Sage

Pitts, J. (1999) Working With Young Offenders Second Edition Basingstoke: Macmillan

Teasdale, J. and Powell, N. (1987) `Youth Workers and Juvenile Justice` in Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. (eds) Youth Work London: Macmillan

Walker, M. (1995) Interpreting Crime Statistics Oxford: Clarendon

West, D. J. (1967) The Young Offender New York: International Universities Press

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