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Understanding the Psychology of Youth Crime – SMC Briefing

What are the psychological factors behind why youth commit crime? What does the evidence say around prevention?

The Science Media Centre held the second in our series of pre-election background briefings with experts diving into the science and evidence behind popular topics in the lead up to next month’s general election.

The SMC held an “ask an expert” briefing with Dr Armon Tamatea (Rongowhakāta; Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki), Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Waikato, where journalists could ask questions on the psychology of youth crime.

A recording of the briefing and abridged transcript is available below:

Opening comments from Dr Tamatea:

“This is a very interesting and important issue I think we’re talking about today, not least because one it’s so topical, we know this because it’s frequently in the headlines, and very much raising the anxieties for the general public, of which we’re hearing a lot of the discourse around that.

“It’s a complex area too when we talk about youth crime and youth justice by extension. This is a complex area because not only are we dealing with people who are committing crimes, but also when they’re committing crimes: in youth during adolescence where it’s a time of great volatility, in terms of where people are at in their lifespan development. Hence, the need for clarity around a number of the issues that come up when we talk about youth crime and youth justice.

“It’s also a really emotive issue. People are afraid and we’re hearing this conversation around fear in the communities as a driver for much of our political thinking at the moment. And of course, this will feed into people’s voting behavior, also. So, there is a need for rational science discourse and clear conversation around this.

“And thirdly, there’s a real importance around the need for action. People who commit offenses at a young age have a range of quite negative outcomes in life later. Perhaps the most obvious would be around crime into adulthood. Now, not everyone does. In fact, the vast majority of young people who do get involved in crime don’t go on to commit crimes into adulthood, but there is a small group that do tend to do so and can be quite serious recidivists. There’s mental health issues, there’s high rates of psychiatric involvements, psychological mental health problems, substance abuse, alcohol abuse, and personality issues can emerge over time also. There’s physical health challenges, which can be a sequelae of youth offending, again, such as higher rates of hospitalisation, as well as mortality as part of that picture, so people tend to die earlier. […] Educational attainment, occupations, marital adjustment, social adjustments, and intergenerational transmission of trauma can all be part of this picture. So, there’s a lot going on for people where offending is part of the picture. And part of the issue we need to be careful about is not to define our young people by their offending behavior, but also maybe see it as a product of an ecology and ecosystem of things that are going on.

“[…] a couple of basic principles that I would suggest would be worth thinking about. One is to think about issues of not just offending, but for youth in general is an ecosystemic kind of way and an ecological way. Young people are involved in a range of systems, both as individuals, peer groups, family, whānau, relationships, schools, neighbourhoods, communities, and of course, engagement with other systems at a higher level and over time. So, there are all sorts of ways that young people get dissected and carved up and fragmented across various parts of society—rightly or wrongly.

“The second, thinking about it ecosystemically, means that we have opportunities to see a much wider range of points of entry when it comes to intervention. The thing I would probably caution against whether talking crime more broadly or youth crime in particular, are silver bullet, single-hit kind of approaches. And we hear about these with things like bootcamps, for example, as kind of a panacea, supposedly, for dealing with youth crime. And we know the evidence just does not support that, not least because these approaches tend not to consider the broader systems that young people exist in.

“Which brings me to the second kind of principle that I’d like you to think about today, which is, how a problem how problems are conceptualised, how problems are formulated often dictates how the solutions are kind of formulated as well. So, if we take the bootcamp example, if discipline is seen to be the mechanism of change, that if we simply put a group of young people into a paramilitary- or a military academy-type setting, with a focus on physical activity, structure, discipline, following orders, and distractions, and so forth, amongst other things, then that’s presumed to be the mechanism of change. But perhaps what those programmes don’t address the wider issues like poverty, if that’s part of the picture, family tensions and dynamics, histories of abuse, for example. These are issues that are not likely to be addressed through a monolithic, discipline-focused way of thinking about change.

“[…] So as a clinical psychologist, I actually started in youth prisons, and thankfully, there aren’t too many of these anymore. There were about four in Aotearoa in 2001 when I started off. […] What’s been gratifying to see in many ways has been the decline in young people going to prison or the need for young people to go to prison. There’s other options now that have been opened up due to changes in the justice system. And again, some different thinking than maybe was utilised before, where prisons were seen as kind of the primary solution to address a range of issues which, of course, prison is not an ideal solution to many issues–other than containment for particularly hard-to-handle human beings, for example.”

On a very basic level, what are some of the psychological factors leading up to why a young person might commit a crime?

“So, there’s a number of ways we can think about this. One way is to think—and this is a traditional way,  I’m not saying this is the way we should look at the issues—the traditional way of thinking about psychological drivers is typically to look at the individual as a “bad apple.” And this is an unfortunate way of pathologising young people, […] Psychopathic personality, for example, is seen as a problematic set of traits that a person may have that, if not inevitably, but can facilitate offending behaviour and adulthood such as having low empathy, for example, high-risk taking behaviour, and so forth. And there’s been a greater conversation about whether young people can be diagnosed with this condition as well. This is just an example of one kind of set of things that could be considered as a driver for youth and young people.

“But if we draw the lens out, what we really need to think about is, what’s happening for the person themselves? What are the issues going on for them? And if we think about this from a lifespan development perspective as well, young people go through a lot of change, especially in adolescence. Young people go through physical change, hormonal change, and with that emotional change, behavioural change, social change—all the changes, as we all know, and we’ve all been adolescents, some time in our lives, right? Where there’s so much volatility and instability emotionally and socially going on during that time. That also includes relationships with whānau—even in well-adjusted homes there can be tensions. With teenagers and parents, you know, that’s been going on as long as there’s been human beings. And that situation is not likely to go away anytime soon, it’s largely seen as almost a universal truth, in a way, of how people, families, communities develop. Part of that is, of course, separating from the family unit to become an autonomous, independent adult. Sometimes that adjustment can happen very well. Other times, it can involve other more risky things.

“So, some of the research, and actually, one of the best research bodies we have is the Dunedin Longitudinal Study, which you may well be aware of, which has tracked people since I believe the late 70s right through to now. The study’s still going, and it’s been one of the longest running longitudinal studies in the world. Dunedin, at the time, had a fairly representative population of Aotearoa during that era, and it followed about 1000 plus people over time, and have been measuring a wide range of variables and outcomes. And some of those, of course, are antisocial- and crime-related outcomes, and the gender differences and so forth. So, what that’s shone a light on, and has shown some consistency with, is the national literature around the psychological drivers for crime.

“If we start off at a biological level, there may well be some neurological challenges that people are dealing with, there may well be learning issues. Conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, for example, is a common one, which presents with learning challenges in mainstream education. And the impact of that can’t be understated. So, for folks who do present with learning challenges, [they] can often be alienated from mainstream learning, especially if they’re in a school or learning institute, which doesn’t cater for folks that have the learning style. Now, that’s not to say that if you have ADHD that you’d become criminal, but that’s one element of the range that [we] would need to consider that might be part of the picture.

“Peer relationships are really vital during adolescence, perhaps more than any other phase in our lives in terms of who actually shapes our behaviour, probably more our peers during that era than perhaps our parents, our teachers, or others. […] Perhaps, and this is a speculation, but perhaps a little accident, why we see individuals join gangs in this country in late adolescence, early adulthood than we do in the 40s or 50s, for example. It’s highly unusual to hear of someone who’s joined their first gang in New Zealand at the age of 45, for example. That generally it’s just not something that happens. People prospect for gangs, typically in their teens or in prisons, in their 20s up to the early 30s perhaps. There’s something to be said about the developmental phase, what’s going on during that time of life for people that makes these groups or these kind of peer relationships so important for folk during those periods.

“Zooming the lens out further, we have schools, which of course are a significant socialising institution in New Zealand and around the world. Schools, if amongst other things: amongst developing cognitive and knowledge and learning competencies, also social competencies as well. So peer groups are formed in schools, relationships with authorities, teachers, and so forth are also formed in schools. But again, a fidelity of learning style with the teaching institutes is an area where […] gaps can occur where young people then fall by the wayside.

“These are complex environments also, all these environments are the home, the school, the neighbourhoods, the broader community. There’s a lot to say here. So maybe if I just give an example: in a community, you may have young people who congregate in certain parts of town. It’s a way that certain young people might socialise. A particular town I was at a couple of years ago, I was working with a gang whānau just out of the ways here, and in their particular town, there was a bylaw, which forbade young people from congregating around certain areas in the CBD, which meant they were few places where young people could congregate in that particular area. And, I guess, an unintended consequence of that was a number of these young folk, they end up in other kinds of social circles where drugs became the norm. And addictions became part of that picture and mental health issues and suicidality became part of that as well.

“So that’s the impact that a community—or even a community change—can have on behaviour, for example. Things are fragile, things are volatile, which is why this area is so important and this part of development is so important.”