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Early interventions, troubled youth and labelling

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Science-fiction visions of dystopian societies, such as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron and Philip K Dick’s Minority Report, all three turned into successful films, are increasingly evoked in discussions of changes in society, individual freedoms and state control of criminal justice. These stories, in the eloquent words of Lucia Zedner, tap into our worst fears of:

"..a shift from a post- to a pre-crime which the possibility of forestalling risks competes with and even takes precedence over responding to wrongs done. In consequence, the post-crime orientation of criminal justice is increasingly overshadowed by the pre-crime logic of security. [...] Pre-crime, by contrast, shifts the temporal perspective to anticipate and forestall that which has not yet occurred and may never do so." (2007: 262)

In Predicting Young Criminals, his recent article for CrimeTalk, Sean Creaney is therefore in good company in seeing parallels between Minority Report, with its pre-crime social exclusion of predicted murderers, and the pre-emptive turn in youth justice developments. He reflects on the role of practitioners required to assess the likelihood of young people becoming offenders, using fallible methods, and then to direct them onto youth offending programmes before they have offended. 

One concern is the resultant dangers of ‘contamination’: learning about and getting drawn into crime by others in a criminal justice setting. There can be few practitioners in criminal justice who have not felt the ethical tensions between assisting and controlling those in their caseloads. In particular, placing enforceable requirements on young people who have not been through the court process nor convicted of offending can be experienced as a violation of basic freedoms and human rights - because they are imposed without the authority of the rule of law and due process protections, including the presumption of innocence. Even if consent is first obtained there will be, at least informal, conditions and obligations. Creaney also raises concerns about the likely counterproductive effects of interventions that focus primarily on negative aspects of individuals and their lives, perceiving and defining them by these terms rather than by any strengths they may have; in effect, instead of building them up, putting them down, with all the contingent difficulties of such labelling. Most of us know someone who was strongly and lastingly affected by degrading category labels applied to them at some point in their childhood. Stigmatising names can shape futures. 

It sometimes feels as if we have already crossed a boundary and moved into this Minority Report nightmare, or into the cock-eyed world of Lewis Caroll’s Through the Looking Glass where for the White Queen it makes perfectly good sense for punishment to precede a trial and for the trial to precede the crime. In real life, lots of examples can be found. The increasing use of precautionary checks and records, and of security restrictions, gives us a sense that we are moving closer to a paranoid, totalitarian society where we are mistrusted, watched and controlled.

The proliferation of out-of-court interventions such as ASBOs (now CPIs or crime prevention injunctions), YISPs (or youth inclusion and support panels) and, the latest example, the ‘Troubled Families’ programmes, together with extensive cuts to social benefits and public and third sector funding, recent discussions about redefining poverty, tackling ‘worklessness’, and evicting people from social housing, can all make these forebodings seem more real. But the sinister elements can be exaggerated.

It is easy to spot a nasty side to the Troubled Families Unit. The TF Policy (yes it sounds like ‘tough policy’, and it even comes with appointed ‘Troubleshooters’), was launched in March 2012 by the Department for Communities and Local Government [CLG] and is a payment-by-results programme that will reward upper tier local authorities with up to £4,000 per family if they get children off the streets and into school, reduce youth crime and antisocial behaviour, and put parents on a path back to work. At least ten local authorities have signed up so far and many more are likely to do so in the hope of getting something back from the £448 million scheme if they pay 60% of the costs themselves and meet the performance targets. Although voluntary for those families participating, arrangements can be made for parenting orders to be imposed. The tough-speaking Louise Casey leads the TFP, reporting to the CLG Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, who has compared himself to the gun-toting cowboy filmstar, John Wayne.

The TF programme has been condemned as punishing families for being poor, desperate and/or mentally ill. Different interpretations of the designation, ‘troubled families’, combined with statistical errors in the estimated numbers of 120,000 such families have already caused controversy and scepticism. According to the documentation, families selected for the intervention should be:

(1) involved in crime and anti-social behaviour;

(2) have children not in school;

(3) have adult(s) on out-of-work benefits; and

(4) cause high costs to the public purse.

But, as pointed out by Ruth Levitas (2012), the estimated figure of such families is based on a 2004 survey of families suffering multiple deprivation and, of the seven-item criteria applied in that earlier study, none of them referred to criminal conduct or antisocial trouble-making. There may be a narrow (or medium) overlap between the families highlighted in the 2004 survey and the intended recipients of TF policy but using the same statistics is clearly wrong. The figure of 120,000 is likely to be an underestimate of income-poor families especially in the current financial climate, but David Cameron and Louise Casey define troubled families as those who ‘both have problems and cause problems’. The subtext therefore is ‘troublemakers’ and the tabloid press has already run articles referring to them as ‘Scumbags’.

Concern about labelling, though, should cut both ways. Those of us who object to the vilifying of the poor and the demonising of young people can fall into similar habits of closed judgement ourselves. We evaluate politicians and government programmes quickly, happy to go along with pronouncements that confirm our existing prejudices or first suspicions. I’ve never met Louise Casey but I have tended to join others in referring to her by the unflattering moniker of Asbo Queen, and to go along with the judgements of her as hard and lacking in compassion. That’s prejudice based on reputation, and maybe it is unfair. Others present a different view. Apparently, in a recent speech to London Calling she moved the audience to tears in telling them about the suffering of families she had encountered. Similar points can be made about other individuals associated with the TFP. Matthew Taylor (2012), Chief Executive of the RSA and keen advocate of social equality, has commented that he knows people leading the programme and that they are passionate about breaking the cycle of intergenerational deprivation and the harm that can be inflicted on other members of disadvantaged communities.

The ‘Troubled Families’ Programme has some commendable features if we want to look for them. Local authorities are being encouraged to base the work on examples of successful family intervention programmes already established or piloted, such as the Westminster Family Recovery Programme and the Edge of Care Family Intervention Project in Torbay. Strengths of these include: a whole family approach rather than focusing on one person in the family; a single key worker to be the main point of contact; and a multi-agency involvement with representatives of each service working together on an agreed plan.

The involvement of various services beyond the criminal justice system is important. As a recent report by the Centre for Social Justice (2011: 12) has observed, the youth justice system has too often been a “dumping ground, sweeping up the problem cases that other local authority services have failed to address”. The opportunities for voluntary services to be involved or to provide the keyworker service are also to be welcomed. They may have more success in gaining the confidence of families who may be resistant or mistrustful of public services associated with enforcement and sanctions.

In any case, whatever the top-down policy intentions, there is evidence that practitioners assert their own interpretations and values in determining the purpose of their work and what needs to be done when faced with the unhappy lives of service users and their painfully disadvantaged children.

In my own research on youth justice and probation practice over the years I have always been impressed by the passion to help, support and empower individuals and their families irrespective of the repressive and punitive rhetoric attached to policy reforms under which they work. There are many recent examples of positive work being done by individuals and services, in the public and voluntary sectors, often in combination, to support young people and provide transformational opportunities for young people at risk or already offending. They deserve some credit.

Perhaps the main criticism to be made against preventive interventions aimed at young people, though, is that they come too late: for older children and teenagers growing up in neglectful or abusive families the worst damage has already been done (Burnett 2007). The best evidence of effectiveness in promoting healthy parenting and preventing antisocial behaviour comes from programmes that target 3-8 year olds (Fletcher et al. 2012).

Yet those ethical questions and moral qualms raised about preventive interventions for school children seem particularly pertinent when applied to infants, sometimes even before they are born. We may joke about tagging nursery children and about foetuses with ASBOs but our misgivings about stigmatising babies are real. Much depends on the principles which are applied and the underlying ethos. But also expectations matter.

Dystopian interpretations of change can be dangerous, as Lucia Zedner (2002) has argued. Not only is it unbalanced and unfair to play down the positives or simply overlook them, an emphasis on the worst elements and interpretations of programmes can have the effect of further reifying them. If a strengths-based approach is good for bringing out the best in young people and families, while negative labelling has self-fulfilling effects, the same might apply to programmes. 


Burnett, R. (2007) ‘Never too early? Reflections on research and interventions for early developmental prevention of serious harm’, in: Blyth, M., Solomon, E. and Baker, K. (eds.) Safeguarding Young People, Protecting the Public and Managing Risk, London: Policy Press.

Centre for Social Justice (2012) Rules of Engagement: Changing the heart of youth justice. A policy report of the Youth Justice Working Group. London: Centre for Social Justice.

Creaney, S. (2012), ‘Predicting young criminals’ CrimeTalk, 6 June 2012, Accessed 21/06/12).

Fletcher, A., Gardner, F., McKee, M. and Bonnell, C. (2012) ‘The British government’s Troubled Families Programme’, British Medical Journal, 344, June, p.344.

Levitas, R. (2012) ‘The government has misrepresented research findings on “troubled families”, blaming the poor, not coalition policies, for rising poverty levels’ LSE British Politics and Policy Blog, 14 June 2012 (Accessed 21/06/12).

Taylor, M. (2012) ‘No family resemblance to the truth’, 13 June 2012 (Accessed 13/06/12).

Zedner, L. (2007) ‘Pre-crime and post-criminology?’, Theoretical Criminology, 11(2), 261-81.

Zedner, L. (2002) 'Dangers of dystopias in penal theory - Extended review of David Garland’s The Culture of Control’, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, 22(2), 341-66. 

Ros Burnett is a Research Associate of the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford. Ros obtained her doctorate in Social Psychology from the Department of Experimental Psychology in Oxford and, before entering academia, was a probation officer and relationship counsellor. She has been a member of the Centre for Criminology since 1990 - apart from a two year period when she 'desisted from crime' - and she was the first Head of the Centre's Probation Studies Unit. Her research encompasses probation, youth justice and prison services, the unifying theme being interventions and processes that impact on criminal careers to limit reoffending and support desistance from crime.


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