Within London alone in 2015 seven young people have been fatally wounded by knives, often by other young people, who themselves will now spend extensive periods within custodial institutions. This is not an issue that only affects London; in urban cities across the United Kingdom we now have a deep history of youth murders and custodial institutions warehousing those that are responsible.
Society and the media have found a way to cope with the loss of children in such horrific circumstances by underpinning their deaths with a narrative of gangs and urban youth who are destructive, dangerous, feral and vicious. Generally, adults find comfort in rationalising youth violence by viewing the children involved as "unruly groups", raised by parents who have failed and are probably involved in some form of criminality, shaping the actions of their children. This is a limited and unhelpful view.
As we strive to understand the triggers surrounding the recent increase in youth stabbings and violence across London (According to the Met, there have reportedly been 1,600 cases of youth stabbings in the 12 months to May 2015, a 23% increase on the previous year) are we asking the correct questions? Can we understand what it is like to be a child, young person or young adult within British society and the risks associated within these stages of life?
So why have decided to blog about this and why do I care?
I have spent a decade as a youth justice practitioner working with hundreds of children and young people within the criminal justice system to prevent or reduce re-offending. I now run my own organisation delivering early intervention programmes to divert young people away from the criminal justice system, in addition to delivering offending behaviour programmes and supporting the rehabilitation of those already serving custodial sentences.
Working with children and young people who have grown up in complex and often unsafe environments, leading to them making poor choices and irreversible mistakes, has enabled me to empathise with their personal narratives which sadly, are all too often very similar. Acknowledging and developing victim empathy in addition to ensuring young people take responsibility for their actions, always underpins my practice; just so you don't think I am deluded surrounding the harm and impact offending has upon society.
However, we as a society seem to view children and young people that are offending as some other species or monsters, especially those convicted of the most heinous crimes. In reality, they are children, young people and young adults that are involved in and subjected to a culture and society placing increased demands upon them to become adults and make mature decisions before they are emotionally developed enough to do so.
At this time, I am acutely aware, along with other practitioners working with youth, that youth culture between the ages of 13-25 has significantly changed in the last decade. We as a society have underestimated the true importance and significance of urban British youth culture. The new culture is shaped by globalisation and multiculturalism, creating a landscape whereby children and young people are operating in a highly vulnerable, exclusive, hierarchical, distorted and under-researched setting.
Through my work I've come to learn that much of the knowledge gained about youth culture and effective engagement with young people over the past decade has been shaped by a refusal here in the UK to acknowledge the significance of this new culture as we have tried to understand it using American models and approaches.
Practitioners who work closely with individuals who have significant reputations and extensive offending histories will tell you that the current youth culture requires a new and honest approach.
The gateway to the criminal justice system for many of the young people that I work with has been exclusion from school due to challenging and sometimes violent behaviour. However, many will also state that teachers and adults charged with their supervision have no real idea about the challenges that young people and young adults have faced and are currently experiencing.
I wish I could say that young people are exaggerating and not taking responsibility for their actions. But I hear on a daily basis numerous accounts of young people being assaulted, physically, sexually and emotionally abused, unsupervised, fearing for their lives daily within their local communities, experiencing poverty, exploitation, grooming, a lack of understanding from parents, ambivalence from teachers and strained relationships with the Police. These experiences have led the shaping of a new youth culture which protects, defends and provides for itself without the need for adults.
Some people reading this may say, "during my day it was just as bad". No, it was not just as bad and moreover, the workers within statutory, private and community organisations at that time were not experiencing the youth murders, youth violence, youth offending and youth culture shaped by the interconnectivity of this modern-day society.
If you are reading this and work with children, young people and young adults within an urban environment in the UK, it is important to keep your knowledge of the current youth culture sharpened, or you may be missing the true vulnerability being experienced by British youth in todays society. If you are reading this and share similar thoughts through your practice and experiences, then you are probably a light-bearer. Keep doing what you do!
This is not supposed to be a doom and gloom blog leaving the reader feeling hopeless about the state of British youth culture. This is really a reminder that we need to take stock of the current landscape and think about how we develop and create effective interventions and train staff to support the generations of the future.
Andrez Harriott is managing director of The Liminality Group working to develop the potential of young people. He is also an ex-youth justice practitioner, Criminologist, Sociologist, Recruiter and Musician.