12 September 2010

Gang membership & knife carrying in Scotland...

There seems every indication that Scottish Labour intend to revive their policy on mandatory prison sentences for those caught possessing a knife in their 2011 Holyrood manifesto. I have been and remain an inveterate opponent of this policy and dearly hope that the party is never in a position to realise their misplaced goals. It was with significant interest, then, that I read two pieces of  germane independent research, lately published by the Scottish government. Both were conducted by researchers associated with the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research and contend with the phenomenon knife-carrying and gang-membership among the young in urban Scotland. I'm not going to attempt any in-depth analysis of their findings here. Rather, I thought I'd outline their reports in an accessible fashion, so that you may winkle out the elements that may be of particular interest to you.

The first report was produced by Susan McVie, Professor of Quantitative Criminology at the University of Edinburgh's School of Law and treats a similar subject, albeit within a more confined geography. In Gang Membership and Knife Carrying: Findings from The Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions, McVie draws on data collected in the course of the longitudinal Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime which has been running since the late 1990s. This second study is far more quantitative in nature than the qualitative data presented in the subsequent paper, using statistical methods to examine respondents' answers to a questionnaire. For myself, I'm far more interested in qualitative social research, so I'll be focusing more on the second report here. Composed by the scholarly criminological phalanx that is Jons Bannister and Pickering, Susan Batchelor, Michele Burman, Keith Kintrea and Susan McVie, Troublesome Youth Groups, Gangs and Knife Carrying in Scotland outlines its aims in this brisk executive preamble:

1. Recent years have witnessed growing concern about the existence of youth gangs and the engagement of their members in violent conflict involving knives and other weapons. However, there is limited reliable evidence relating to the nature, form and prevalence of youth 'gangs' and knife carrying in Scotland. Recognising these information shortfalls, the research reported here set out to: 

  • Provide an overview of what is known about the nature and extent of youth gang activity and knife carrying in a set of case study locations. 
  • Provide an in-depth account of the structures and activities of youth gangs in these settings. 
  • Provide an in-depth account of the knife carrying in these settings.
  • Offer a series of recommendations for interventions in these behaviours based on this evidence.
2. The research was conducted in 5 case study locations, namely: Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire. There were two major data collection components. First, the research interviewed those engaged in the delivery of services designed to manage and challenge problematic youth behaviours, inclusive of youth gangs and knife carrying. Second, the research gained access (via these services) to a large sample of young people. Despite the intention to interview distinct samples of gang members and knife carriers, most of the young people identified through this methodological approach held some form of group affiliation.

Helpfully, the report also outlines relevant sources of available data on "youth gangs" and "knife carrying" in Scotland. The authors' conclusions encapsulate the more elaborated data which follows and can be comfortably (and quickly) read to get a sense of the whole piece. For those wanting a substantial but limited summary of the report's findings, I'd suggest you read this.
The substance of the study are interviews conducted in five urban locations across Scotland - Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen and West Dunbartonshire, both with those involved in "youth gangs" and with folk working in relevant local government and police agencies in the respective locations, speaking to the diversity in understandings and approaches researchers encountered there. I read with particular interest the "detailed discussion of gang structures and characteristics, as depicted by young people themselves". Sections have been abstracted from interviews and deal with broad themes of group characteristics and dynamics, including their relationship to territoriality, symbols, the presence or absence of explicit "gang" identities - and also the role of young women in these associations. They report also collates data on how respondents entered these groups and the difficulties facing attempts to withdraw from these associations.

From our starting point, the most relevant section concerns attitudes towards and experiences of knife and weapon carrying and use reported by respondents and seeks to:

"report the reasons cited by young people as to why they avoid carrying (and/or using) knives (and other weapons), including their awareness of the risks of doing so"

Attitudes varied significantly, bearing out the conviction that knife possession is my no means a straightforward social practice and strongly counsels that overly simple accounts of the phenomenon of knife carrying will not serve us well as we strive to judge and understand why people behave the way they do. Responses included ideas of knife as symbolic reinforcer of reputation, knife as weapon and knife as protection, but also significantly emphasised a gamut of reasons for eschewing the possession of a bladed or pointed weapon. In sum:

6.2  It is important to stress that the attitudes towards, and experiences of, carrying and/or using weapons varied considerably across the participants in this study. For example, many gang members were also knife carriers; however, others were vehemently opposed to carrying knives. Some young people carried knives frequently, others rarely.

And I think, equally significantly "Some young people interviewed for this study could not offer an explanation of why they carried a knife." Others spoke with a terrible conviction on their experiences of violence, its pleasures, their familiarity with its risks, both in terms of prosecution and in terms of permanent injury, disfigurement and death. The bottom line seems to be this. Knives ought not to be seen in isolation. For instance, the research also notes that it is striking how "gang membership and violent group behaviour are regarded as a normal part of growing up in particular families and neighbourhoods". Interestingly, too, the research suggests that "The significance of 'place attachment' is not nearly so strong in the East of Scotland." The main focus of the subsequent section is on these groups' violent activities, including territorial and inter-group violence. The authors suggest that:

5.34 ... street-orientated youth gangs have not evolved into organised criminal groups, but remain groups of adolescents looking for friendship, something to do, belonging, status and identity. Many aspects of their lifestyle are conventional and reflect those of other young people who do not associate with gangs.

5.35 Nevertheless, these young people often get involved in antisocial or criminal behaviour, ranging from breach of the peace to interpersonal and violence. Very serious offending was, however, largely the preserve of a few 'core' gang members.

Whatever one's political hue or one's convictions about specific policy expedients, we can all agree that any approach ought to be an informed one. Labour and Tories in favour of ratcheting up compulsory minimums may well point to particular quotations, noting the deterrence potential of the threat of imprisonment. Certainly, unsurprisingly, fear of detection and punishment was reported by some respondents:

6.19 Some interviewees were keenly aware of the risks of being caught with a knife. Increases in police stop and searches and the risk of a prison sentence, if caught carrying or using a knife, were cited as a key reason for not carrying a knife. Interviewees who were approaching 16 years in age, or who were older, were more sensitive to this issue. That said, many were unclear or incorrect as to the precise legal consequences of knife carrying/using. Further, other interviewees reported the limited impact of police stop and searches or reported that they switched the type of weapon that they carried.

However, one of the great benefits of this report, it seems to me, is its emphasis on uncertainty, ambivalence, difference. Nobody denies that fear of punishment can play a part in individuals' decisions to carry weapons. In contrast, proponents of mandatory prison sentences claim it would play a clear and decisive role. This research confirms that life isn't so easy nor are attempts at deterrence so unerring. For me, this variability and the ambivalent potential of deterrence only reinforces the point I started with. Just as there seems to be no mandatory reason why the young people interviewed carried bladed weapons - no iron law of causation or reasoning on their part - so too there is no reason to impose sentences of mandatory imprisonment on them. We can shut our eyes to the reality and sing lulling penal choruses that might make us feel better. But they'll only make us feel better, not solve the problem.

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