June 23, 2010: Strategy To Tackle Gangs
There should be an integrated national strategy to support criminal justice agencies in tackling the causes and effects of gang activity among under-18s, said Dame Anne Owers, Chief Inspector of Prisons, Andrew Bridges, Chief Inspector of Probation and Sir Denis O’Connor, Chief Inspector of Constabulary, as they published a joint thematic report, The management of gang issues among children and young people in prison custody and the community.
The review, carried out as part of a service level agreement with the Youth Justice Board, examined youth offending teams and young offender institutions (YOIs) to find out how in practice the police, probation and prison services at local level were dealing with gang-related crime involving under 18s.
It found that, in spite of central initiatives, there was a lack of coordination and of clear and effective guidance on local implementation. Where there were clear local definitions and strategies, this greatly helped in developing and implementing responses.
Fieldwork in custody began in January 2009. Nine young offender institutions (out of 16 at that time) were selected for fieldwork, including two girls’ units. Seventy-nine young people were interviewed, as well as 45 Prison Service departmental managers and the caseworkers of each young person. Fieldwork in the community was carried out in six youth offending teams across the country and included interviews with key strategic personnel and a small number of young people and parents.
The report found that responses from all three inspected services were patchy and, at times, counter-productive:
- the police had a well-developed understanding of gang activity but tended to focus on enforcement – "catch and convict", and there was less consideration of the related safeguarding implications for young people involved in gang activity;
- youth offending teams varied considerably in their approach, with some tending to focus on enforcement rather than prevention and rehabilitation, though there were some examples of good practice; and
- prisons often had the least well-developed approach to managing the range of issues for young people involved in gang activity while they were in custody, with some YOIs developing mechanisms to keep apart known gangs, which risked reinforcing gang identity and replicating the ‘postcode boundaries’ of gangs in the community.
Within and across the agencies inspected, there were some good initiatives and some good practice, but information-sharing was generally inadequate and practitioners felt they lacked the support, training and range of interventions to deal with young people in gangs.
Young people themselves said that gang membership was a source of protection, but also of a source of fear and that friendship, territoriality and ‘respect’ defined and justified gang activity. Young women’s positions were less clear cut and they could be used, protected or mistrusted.
The chief inspectors said:
"It is important not to exaggerate the extent of genuinely gang-related activity among young people, or to assist its growth by glamorising it. However, where such activity does exist, it is pernicious – affecting the safety and wellbeing of those involved, as well as the safety of their families and the community.
"Research showed that there was no integrated joint national strategy on gangs to support criminal justice and community agencies in tackling causes as well as effects. Agencies had therefore missed significant opportunities to work with young people involved or likely to get involved in gangs. Such an approach is overdue. It is welcome that there have been some more recent initiatives by the Youth Justice Board, but there remains a need for much greater coordinated action at national, inter-agency and inter-departmental level."
Frances Done, Chair of the Youth Justice Board, said:
"The Youth Justice Board welcomes the findings of this report, which we commissioned, to help change the lives of young people involved with gangs. However, since the field work began in 2008, significant progress has been made on some of the recommendations.
"We have made huge strides in coordinating the work between the police and YOTs, to map out gang activity in different communities. And we have worked with custodial centres to safeguard under-18s by identifying gang members and placing them appropriately. We will continue to help and safeguard young people involved in gangs both in custody and the community. The YJB has also made a significant contribution to the Tackling Knives Action Programme (TKAP) by facilitating the introduction of 97 Knife Crime prevention programmes in the last two years."