The link between poverty, inequality and repeat contact with policing

Work with offenders on a new report from Revolving Doors

A new report from the charity Revolving Doors as part of its New Generation Policing programme combines a literature review and peer-led qualitative research to demonstrate how the issues of poverty, trauma and policing interact for young adults aged 18-25.

The review argues that there is significant scope to extend our understanding of how different aspects of inequality combine in young adults’ lives, and how these relate to offending and relationships with the police. The peer-led qualitative research brings together important, close-up, lived experience accounts to demonstrate the complex interplay of the various dimensions of inequality that impact young people’s lives, engagement in crime and interaction with the police. The report’s foreword is written by Serena Kennedy, Chief Constable of Merseyside Police.

The report has all the usual hallmarks of a Revolving Doors publication; it is grounded in the evidence base (the literature review) and prioritises lived experience (the qualitative research).

The literature review 

As many readers will know, the number of children and young adults entering the criminal justice system has been falling in recent years. However, once young people are drawn into the criminal justice system, the lack of consistent means to divert them away into effective support results in at least a proportion ending up with extensive convictions in their adult lives, for often minor and mostly non-violent crimes.

Although there are far fewer young people involved in the justice system, those who are typically face multiple challenges and severe, cumulative, and often very complex problems. These are all too often not properly understood or addressed. Particularly young adults, who frequently and interchangeably present to police as victims, witnesses and suspects of crime are shown to experience more challenges, more severely and for longer than any other young adults within the criminal justice system. They are also less likely to be assessed for their needs and subsequently access any support in the community. This is one of the key challenges for those involved in work tackling County Lines drug dealing gangs where the same child may be seen as perpetrator and victim depending on the professional point of view.

The literature review concludes that the criminal justice system appears to be the bottom of a gaping hole created by the structural inequalities and systemic underfunding of community provision, drawing in more and more young adults with heightened unmet health and human needs, with lives built on trauma, poverty and inequalities. Yet, the criminal justice system is often ill-equipped to deal with people facing these severe and multiple disadvantages - standard responses based on enforcement and punishment are shown to turn young adults’ lives from bad to worse and make reoffending more rather than less likely.

To date, much of the policy response towards offending amongst young people and young adults has tended to rely almost solely on what is known as ‘risk factor approaches’. Risk factor approaches focus on particular adverse circumstances or behaviours as predictive of increased likelihood of offending. They advocate intervention, often aimed at individual behavioural change, as a way of diverting young people from offending. However, the report concludes, our current over-reliance on these approaches often prioritises individual-level explanations at the expense of assessing the ‘risks’ presented by the structural conditions young adults grow up and live in.

Lived experiences 

The experiences shared by young people in the research highlight a number of recurrent themes:

  • Inequalities are at the heart of their experiences of the criminal justice system.
  • Lack of money, lack of opportunities and problematic relationships drive them into a cycle of crisis and crime.
  • Young adults in repeat contact with the police feel routinely discriminated against by police and other public services because of who they are, who they are friends with, and where they live.
  • Young adults believe that police contact can make or break their future.
  • Young adults, particularly young men, may not easily accept support from the police, even if it means they can avoid going to court.
  • Young adults in repeat contact with the police feel let down by people they know and services they (try to) access.
  • Young adults in repeat contact with the police feel optimistic about their chances of breaking the cycle of crisis and crime, but they are impatient for change.

Conclusions 

The report brings together four key recommendations to improve young adults’ experiences of policing and the wider criminal justice system so that they can achieve their aspirations:

  1. Young adults need police services and the wider criminal justice system to understand the root causes of crime.
  2. Young adults want police officers to receive specialist training on communication and de-escalation.
  3. Young adults would like to work with police services to keep policing to a high standard.
  4. Young adults would like police services to partner with community organisations that can support them.