Crime is not a given amongst young people. Most young people will move through adolescence and into adulthood with at the most a few minor infractions under their belts. Crime involvement peaks in mid adolescence, and then decreases and ceases for the vast majority of those involved.
Only a small group of young people continue offending beyond this time window. While this crime-prone group may draw the most attention, we should not overlook the large proportion of young people who are crime averse. They may tell us as much, if not more, about how to solve the problem of crime.
A major UK study using innovative theory and methods to investigate a group of 700 young people living in Peterborough over a five year span from ages 13 to 17 has highlighted the fact that most young people refrain from committing crime because they don't see crime as an option, not because they fear the consequences.
In the book Breaking Rules: The social and situational dynamics of young people's urban crime (Oxford University Press) authors Wikström, Oberwittler, Treiber and Hardie describe these young people as crime averse. What sets them apart from young people who do commit crime is the fact that they are 'situationally resistant' - even in settings that encourage crime they do not see it as an option for action. And the reason they don't is because they have a strong personal morality. These findings refute the notion that 'opportunity makes the thief'; crime-averse young people are resistant to opportunities to offend.
So far, considerable attention has been paid to those on the opposite end of the spectrum: the most serious and prolific offenders in the study. However, those who commit the least offenses, although often overlooked, may tell us as much, or more, about what factors determine crime involvement. In Breaking Rules, nearly a third of the sample reported no acts of crime between ages 13 and 17, and of those who did most reported only a few. In fact, less than 4% of the sample was responsible for 47% of all self-reported crimes during the study period. Yet even these offenders, who reported on average around one crime per week throughout the five years, spent most of their time not offending.
The most crime-prone young people also spent most of their time in structured settings with family or at school. Although they did spend more time unsupervised with their peers at age 13 than others did at age 17, this still only amounted to approximately two hours per day, rising to a maximum of four hours in later adolescence.
However, it was during this time that they committed the majority of their offenses. Breaking Rules suggests that these young people are 'situationally vulnerable' to settings which lack firm rules where they may consider crime as an option. This vulnerability is better addressed by strengthening their personal law-relevant morality than by increasing their consideration and fear of consequences.
What does this tell us about how to solve the problem of young people's crime? In the longer term it implies we should focus on institutions which play a core role in the development of young people's morality, such as families and schools. The fact that so many young people are, for the most part, crime averse suggests that most of these institutions are doing a good job.
The findings from Breaking Rules and related research may help us better identify and address those which are not. In the shorter term it implies we need to tackle the criminal behaviour of those who are already crime prone by addressing moral contexts that encourage crime. Breaking Rules highlights two key settings - city and local centres, where retail outlets and entertainment venues and the people who visit them present temptations and frictions but lack social cohesion; and residential areas where residents are less likely to intervene due to a lack of social cohesion and subsequently social control, known as poor collective efficacy.
It also highlights key circumstances, including a lack of supervision, unstructured activities and the presence of crime prone peers. A complementary strategy would be to steer crime prone young people clear of these 'criminogenic' settings and circumstances.