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The Royal College of Psychiatrists Improving the lives of people with mental illness

Youth Offending: A Symptom of a Greater Crime

Russell Gibson is a 4th year medical student at Cardiff University


Youth Offending: A Symptom of a Greater Crime by Russell Gibson

Empiricist philosophy was founded upon the belief that a child is born with a mind that is a tabula rasa – a ‘blank state’, with the child’s ensuing development entirely attributable to the environment to which they are exposed. Modern views incorporate the role of genetic inheritance, but it is hard to see how children can overcome maltreatment, neglect, inadequate parenting and poor schooling. These are risk factors for juvenile offending, factors that tend to coalesce around one single denominator: poverty.


Detention centres

Current findings suggest the higher rates of crime found among children of low socioeconomic status are mediated through the disparate effects of poverty on a child’s life course, be that adverse family, individual, school or peer factors (i).  


It must therefore be the utmost priority for youth detention centres to act as places of nurture and rehabilitation, rather than punishment. Stereos, Playstations and pool tables may seem to reward criminality, but lest we forget, these offenders are also children. Indeed, the greatest outrage is that life inside the detention centre is often preferable to that outside, not merely in material terms but also in basic parental input.


Youth Offending: A Symptom of a Greater Crime by Russell Gibson

Detention centre staff provide excellent support for these children, often becoming the parental figures otherwise lacking. However, they also report their input is ultimately limited, for when the child leaves, he or she re-enters the same environment that led to crime in the first place. Social workers can and do intervene, but removing children from their parents comes at a cost. And often, it comes too late.


So we blame the parents, as occurred following the UK riots in the summer of 2011. However, parents are often products of environments similar to those they now provide for their children. This is a self-sustaining cycle of crime, punishment and missed opportunity where the inadequate parenting received by one generation is passed on to the next.


Wider problem

Youth offending, therefore, will never be cured by detention centres, as it is merely a symptom of a much wider problem: social injustice.  It incorporates more than socio-economic disparity: inequality of opportunity, from finding a job to experiencing prejudice.  We expect poor children to act a certain way and we don’t give them the opportunity to act otherwise.


As future doctors, we cannot prescribe a cure for criminality, but being unable to treat does not mean we should not strive to understand the cause.  After all, we too are the product of environments into which we just happened to be born.




Percentage among sentenced young offenders by sex (ii)

  Male Female
Mental and emotional problems 14 22
Been admitted to mental health ward 4 9
Personality disorder 80 84
Hazardous drinking 70 51
Use of illicit drugs 96 84

Drug dependence (not alcohol)

57 56



i. Fergusson D, Swain-Campbell N, Horwood J (2004). How does childhood economic disadvantage lead to crime? Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry 45(5): 956-66.

ii. Lader D, Singleton N and Meltzer H (2000).


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