The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dramatic impact on every conceivable facet of society, both positively and negatively. But what sort of effect has COVID-19 had on youth crime?
Concerns about the prevalence of youth crime in the UK are never likely to go away. Articles and statistics are published on an annual basis which indicate that youth crime is continually on the rise. This comes despite the fact that the Youth Justice System (YJS) have previously reported an 82 percent decrease in the number of cautions or sentences over the past decade.
However, as the COVID-19 pandemic took a hold over the UK in 2020, fresh concerns were understandably raised about what sort of effect the unfamiliar situation would have on youth crime. Would it exacerbate the already worrying circumstances, or would it create a metaphorical reset button for everyone – from the Loughborough, London and Leeds defence lawyers through to the young offenders themselves?
In this post, we’ll be taking a closer look at the impact of COVID-19 on youth crime and discuss whether this impact is likely to be permanent, or simply temporary as life slowly begins to return to normal.
The most recent statistics from the Ministry of Justice appeared to indicate that youth crime was falling in the UK. 19,000 children were cautioned or sentenced between April 2019 and March 2020, marking a 12 percent fall on the previous year. However, that simple figure doesn’t tell the whole story.
The same report also indicates that there was an increase in the average custodial sentence, and the rate of reoffending has stayed largely the same. In fact, this figure is even higher than it was ten years ago.
There were also some concerning statistics related to specific types of crimes. For example, in the year ending March 2020, there were around 4,400 knife or offensive weapon offences committed by children that resulted in a caution or sentence. This is only a 1 percent decrease compared to the previous year and, incredibly, this figure is also a 46 percent increase compared to just five years ago.
Following the first few months of the pandemic, concerns were raised that the social and economic damage spreading throughout the UK would lead to an increase in serious youth violence in the UK.
A Youth Violence Commission report advised that incidents of unemployment, homelessness and trauma sparked by the pandemic would have a particular impact on vulnerable young people. The report also noted that 18 Violence Reduction Units in England and Wales were likely to lose funding.
The report read: "Given the potential for the impact of COVID-19 to create the types of social conditions in which one might reasonably expect to see increased rates of serious violence, it is imperative that support for these units is not only maintained, but increased.”
The precise figures and statistics relating to the rate of offences and convictions among young people during 2020 will not be released until 2022. However, there were still a number of indicators which provided a general idea of how COVID-19 affected youth crime in the UK.
Focusing on the wider population, rather than just children and young people, the immediate response to the pandemic saw a delay in criminal trials and a decrease in the number of arrests and prisons participating in ‘early release schemes. However, this was in contrast to the exacerbation of existing issues, such as poverty, mental health, domestic abuse and school engagement. This indicates that the initial hiatus wasn’t likely to last.
It was theorised that the tight lockdown restrictions first placed on the UK’s population would increase the risk to harm of young people within the home. This would include exposure to neglect and domestic abuse. In turn, this may have led to non-compliance of social distancing rules, resulting in criminalisation, though whether this was truly the case is yet to be seen.
On the other hand, the context of COVID-19 did remove some immediate potential risks to vulnerable young people. It was reported that a large category of ‘acquisitive crimes’ (such as shoplifting or burglary) rapidly decreased as people were forced to stay in their homes, with peer-led offences being similarly affected. Young people who would otherwise be exploited and recruited through street activities were protected by the new, unfamiliar environment.
The University of Bedfordshire published a report in September 2020 which noted that the COVID-19 pandemic had serious consequences for children who were already in prison. This included a reduction in the time for education and social interactions with the outside world.
The study highlighted that in two of the three three Young Offenders Institutions (YOIs) inspected in England and Wales following the onset of the pandemic, educational activities were limited to worksheets in cells. Meanwhile, the third establishment was only able to provide two hours of face-to-face education on school days.
The time children spend out of their cell varied for each institution, with some spending three hours a day outside their cell, and others only being allowed 40 minutes. Contact with the outside world was originally barred, which meant that children in the YOIs were unable to have any face-to-face interactions with family, friends, social workers, external staff, or lawyers.
With COVID-19 related rules being mostly relaxed, and social distancing being considered a recommendation, rather than a mandate, normality is beginning to return to the UK. More people are heading back to work, schools will return to a familiar physical setting, and there will be far fewer contact restrictions.
How this will affect youth crime is yet to be seen. Before the government can take any effective measures, it first needs to be established what effect the first few months of the pandemic had on youth crime. What’s more, if there was a general decrease, whether these figures are likely to spike again now people have been given their freedom should be looked into.