The Western Mail: Youth crime falling but research shows public think it's going up

Wednesday, 5 December, 2007

Our fears of the Asbo generation are way out of proportion with reality, Welsh researchers have claimed. A study by academics at Swansea University asked 500 people of different ages what they thought about youth crime.

They found 60% of respondents felt youth offences had increased over the past two years, with older people significantly more likely to believe it.

In fact, official youth crime, as reported by the Swansea Youth Offending Team, had fallen 26% between 2002 and 2003 and 2004 and 2005.

Also, when it came to theft and violent crime, women and younger people believed offences carried out by youngsters were much higher than they actually were.

Dr Haines, of the university's centre for criminology, said, "The public also seems to be ambivalent about what punishment should be handed out for youth crime.

"While there is general support for prison and a perception sentencing is generally too lenient, this co-exists with support for community-based sentencing for young people."

He believes the "paradox" is caused because while people want offenders to be punished there are also widespread doubts about the efficacy of prison sentences."

He said the study, carried out in Swansea, had unearthed a serious discrepancy between truth and perception.

He said, "There seems to be a profound disconnection between how the Swansea public perceives youth crime and the reality. Those who took part in our study believe that the situation is worse than it actually is.

"In fact their views are more in line with general perceptions of levels of youth crime throughout England and Wales, suggesting that national media and political debate plays a role in how they form their perceptions on these issues more than their own experiences or the actual situation locally. As a result, local dialogue and debate between the public and those managing youth crime and justice, frequently takes place in a climate of mutual misunderstanding which further compromises public confidence in youth justice systems."

Former Crimewatch host Nick Ross strongly believes the public perception of crime is out of step with reality.

And this summer he made an outspoken attack on the media for distorting crime figures.

He said, "The media have long been peddling a big lie about crime, either that or they have been astonishingly incompetent about persuading their listeners, readers and viewers of the truth because the truth is that crime has been declining for well over a decade.

"The most common forms of crime have plunged. Burglary is down 58%, car crime down 61%, violence by 48 %."

And he added, "Yes, we do get the wrong impression, yes it isn't healthy and yes the media are in part to blame, hunting in packs and hungry for the narrative regardless of the underlying truth."

But yesterday, Victims of Crime Trust director Norman Brennan said, "The perception and reality of crime are much closer now than they have been.

"I've heard from 10,000 police officers in the past year through my forms and surveys. "I know what the police feel so I find it amazing that people say crime is going down."

And David Ruffley MP, Conservative spokesman for police reform, said, "We all know Nick Ross is meant to be a great national treasure but he's doing exactly what Labour Ministers do, he's being very selective with his statistics.

"Why doesn't he get it that knife crime has doubled and gun crime has doubled in the past decade?"

The annual British Crime Survey, published this summer, shows violent crime has risen by 5% on the previous year, with more than 2.4 million incidents. More than a million people were attacked by drunken thugs.

The Swansea study says differences in the way crime is recorded make it difficult to get a clear picture of crime.

It points out that in 2003-04, there were 5.9 million crimes reported by police but the British Crime Survey for the same period estimated 11.7 million crimes.

A Home Office spokesman said the Swansea study backed other research.

He said, "Crime by young people hasn't risen in the past five years and the number of known young offenders fell by 14% between 1995 and 2001.

"However, a survey in 2004 showed three quarters of respondents believed the number of young offenders had risen." Home Office figures say total crime in Wales in 2006-07 was 87 offences per 1,000 people (258,473 crimes). Total recorded crime between 2005 and 2007 and 2006 and 2007 fell by 1% in Gwent and 2% in South Wales, was stable in the Dyfed-Powys Police area and rose by 6% in North Wales.