The riots and the evidence
Much of the reaction to August's riots has focussed on young people. It is therefore important to try to get some perspective and details on the level of involvement of young people in the riots. Those of us who work to support young people must not be afraid to examine the evidence coming to light.
Early evidence published in the Guardian found that under-18s comprised less than 20% of all those convicted of riot offences. More recent data provided by the Ministry of Justice, and examined by the BBC showed that 21% of the 1,715 people who had appeared before the courts in relation to the riots were aged between 10 and 17. A further 31% were aged 18-20, and another 21% between 21 and 24 - i.e. 73% were under 25. Data on the previous behaviour of those convicted is also relevant; the latest MoJ figures suggest that of the 10 to 17-year-olds convicted, 45% had not had a previous caution or conviction, compared to 33% of the adults appearing.
Of course, there are many questions about this data still to be answered (alongside the many other questions about explanations). Are the demographics of those arrested reflective of those involved in the riots? Will the police have found it easier to identify and charge those people who already have convictions and whose faces and fingerprints are already on record? How different are the conviction demographics across the cities in the UK where rioting took place? What about those still to be charged?
There clearly remains much we don't know, and while I am wary of making speculations a number of observations seem worth making:
- Many of those involved in the riots were young, and in the age group supported by youth charities. But to characterise the riots as youth riots is to forget that there are as many reasons for involvement in the rioting as there were people involved. Trying to understand the behaviour and motivations of those involved in the rioting is not seeking to excuse their actions and much thoughtful analysis has taken place over the last month or so. This article in particular - which interviewed young people involved, who distinguished between rioters and criminal looters and opportunist looters - was a reminder to me that a blanket condemnation of rioters as looters as criminals is pointlessly simplistic. Others are already offering more nuanced explanations (e.g. at http://reviewrenew.posterous.com/) so I will avoid adding to this for the moment. The events that NCVYS has helped to organise at the political party conferences should also bring further considered voices to the debate (follow us on Twitter to find out more.)
- Adolescence is a transition from dependence to independence, a time when young people are at their most vulnerable and at their most challenging - often rejecting authority and being impossible to engage in constructive dialogue. Riots are by their very nature a youthful expression of anger, frustration and other emotions. However, riots are not just about those who occupy the spotlight and are seen to be rioting; there are also those who incite and those who condone. Yet it is predominantly those visibly involved in violent disorder, who are predominantly the young and challenging, who pay the price with prison sentences. As society we need to look at all of the groups who have been involved, not just those who have thrown stones.
- There seems to be little evidence that it was about gangs. According to the Youth Justice Board only 10-15% of the under-18s who had appeared before the courts had any sort of gang affiliation. During a meeting with NCVYS members and the Minister for Children and Families Tim Loughton there was agreement with one youth worker who noted that in some areas the riots had been a rare occasion when individuals from different gangs had been on the same streets together.
- The young people involved in the riots are a tiny proportion of the overall youth population. The young people involved in riot clean-up efforts are just one of many, many examples of young people's positive engagement with their communities. Every single member of NCVYS could name young people who are every day overcoming challenges and making a vital contribution to society. It should not be forgotten that some of these young people may even have been involved in the riots.
Written by Dom Weinberg, NCVYS Policy Officer