Youth crime levels fall yet fear of youth crime rising*
The Curious Case of British (and Luxembourgian) Prison Rates
At first glance, the UK’s prison population hardly seems to warrant alarm and societal introspection. With 151 inmates per 100,000 members of the population (including Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales), the UK’s incarceration rate matches the average custody figures of its global peers in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). However, beneath the veneer of normalcy the UK (along with Luxembourg at 155 inmates per 100,000 residents) far outpaces the incarceration rates of their political and historical contemporaries in Europe. Amongst the 13 other European OECD member countries who have enjoyed uninterrupted democratic governance since 1945, the average incarceration rate is a scant 79.3 inmates per 100,000–nearly half the rate in the UK. How can a disjuncture of this magnitude be explained?
UK Youth Offender Policy and the Prison of Perception
Although the gap between the UK and its peers demands closer investigation into the comparative roles of race, socioeconomic class, and sentencing policies for offenders, British society needs to look no further than a mirror to understand that the true disjuncture lies in the discordant attitude towards crime across generations. While overall youth crime levels have significantly declined since the mid-1990s, older and politically powerful Britons continue to fear that youth crime is rising. This mistaken perception has perpetuated a distinctly punitive attitude towards sentencing, leading to an arms race amongst political parties to see who can take the toughest stance on crime. Paradoxically, the political reliance on top-down, institutionalised solutions for youth crime has fostered a criminal class which now comprises the core of the UK’s inmate population. With almost 70% of young offenders reconvicted for offences within 2 years of leaving prison, incarceration proves ill-suited for providing the support and rehabilitation necessary to reintegrate young offenders into the community. Accordingly, if the UK wants to narrow the divides in incarceration rates and truly seeks restorative justice then society has to break free from the perception that incarceration provides a “one size fits all” answer for youth crime and find more individualised solutions.
“Reform Through Practice”: How Germany’s Example Can Work in the UK
The German criminologist Dr. Frieder Dünkel’s examination of youth justice in Germany provides fascinating insight into the potential for the UK to rapidly reduce incarceration rates amongst youth offenders. In a mere 4 years, the formerly Communist federal states of East Germany had matched and even exceeded the quality of juvenile welfare infrastructure in West Germany by implementing the Juvenile Justice Act, eliminating the high incarceration rates which traditionally plague former Communist polities. The Juvenile Justice Act operates according to the principle of minimum intervention, with juvenile imprisonment utilised only as a last resort. Instead, educational and disciplinary measures such as community service, special care, social training courses and mediation provide the skills and knowledge young offenders need to reform their ways. With the UK already spending £4 billon annually on tackling youth crime and antisocial behaviour, it is clear that the resources exist to implement a more nuanced approach to youth crime than the heavy-handed institutional strategy currently in place. However, substantive change will only occur when tackling youth crime follows the example of the Juvenile Justice Act and approaches the problem at a grassroots, community level, with an emphasis on educating both offenders and the broader public about how to coexist in society.
 Austria, Belgium, Denmark—excluding Greenland, Finland, France, (West) Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland.
 Juvenile Justice in Germany: Between Welfare and Justice. March 2004.
 Ibid, Pages 5-6.
 Youth Crime Commission Report. For link go to Footnote 4.