In another instalment for the ELL series on gangs, Tara Dein and Marianna Manson look at the wider issues surrounding youth crime.
Tyrone Smith, a London barrister who works defending those involved in gang crime, says it can be difficult to dissociate from the tragedy of people so young becoming caught up in such serious crime. “When you’re dealing with defendants who are so young, the first thing that strikes you is their youth. When you look at the way they conduct themselves, their vocabulary, things they’re interested in, how they speak to you… Sometimes it’s quite alarming to look at what they’re dealing with and think, ‘Crikey, this is their allegation, they’re charged with murder, yet they are so young.’”
Smith describes the cause and effects of gang crime as numerous. “It’s very difficult to have a single strategy that will end gang crime. However, there are all sorts of really promising initiatives, whether that be from government, the police, or charitable organisations.”
St Giles Trust is one such charitable organisation, whose SOS project operating in Lewisham was founded by ex-gang member Junior Smart in Southwark in 2006. The aim of this charity is “to break the cycle of offending and disadvantage”, targeting youths who may lack opportunities, support and role models. “Children and young people do not usually actively set out to become involved in a gang. However, there remain wider problems, which lie outside of the direct remit of those working in the criminal justice system – welfare cuts are having a disproportionately negative effect on disadvantaged young people,” says Tamsin Gregory from St Giles Trust.
Austerity issues are a recurrent theme in conversations about gang crime. Smith said, “If we look at what the causes of gang crime are – poor social housing, poverty, absent fathers, established gangs which pray on young people before they’ve matured – these are societal problems that reach out on many different limbs.”
Established gangs can appear to offer a glamorous alternative to struggling teenagers from deprived boroughs that aspire to the lives idealised in the media and popular entertainment. Move for Life, another London-based charity who believe that knife crime poses a huge threat to young Londoners and in turn, society as a whole, agree that providing young people with good opportunities, support and focus, is the first step in preventing them from drifting towards potentially dangerous lifestyles.
“Young people face constant pressure to fit in, and they may not have the support they need to avoid the pressures to join a gang. Gangs have mastered the art of manipulation to attract potential recruits; they can appear to have the ‘perfect’ lifestyle and can offer an image of ‘cool’,”Ruth Sullivan from Move for Life told East London Lines. What’s more, “communities with a high gang activity often recruit new members out of a basic need to survive. It is often easier to join a gang rather than to remain vulnerable and unprotected in your neighbourhood.”
The numbers do suggest that gang crime in the capital really is something to be concerned about. “According to MPS Intelligence there are 225 recognised gangs in London, comprising of around 3,600 gang members. 58 gangs are considered particularly active – accounting for two thirds of offences where a named gang has been identified as involved. We want the government to put a stronger focus on prevention rather than cure,” explains Sullivan.
Prevention, rather than retribution, is universally acknowledged amongst these charities as the best chance at tackling gang violence in the capital. It comes as no surprise that trial and error has lead most to lean toward employing ex-offenders to work directly with the vulnerable demographic. “The defining feature of our work is training and employing highly skilled, professionally qualified ex-offenders to provide credible peer led services,” says Gregory. “Someone who has been involved in a crime but successfully reformed is a powerful and very authentic positive role model.”
Sullivan agrees: “[It’s important to] provide a collaborative network between existing local charities, to provide a central directory of the after school and weekend activities available, to liaise with schools and community centres to tackle the culture behind gang crime and to establish programmes which translate research – such as the sociology behind gang related crime – in order to provide education for young people in London.”
Reporting team: Tara Dein, Annie Gouk, Henry Longden, and Marianna Manson
Read the other articles in this series here: