Fall 2008



Community, Kids and Crime

Jean Hine Reader in Criminology,
De Montfort University, Leicester, UK

It has long been established that crime happens in some places more than others, and that these places are usually areas of high economic and social deprivation where a range of “social problems” are rife. There are numerous theories about why this might be, and many policy initiatives to try and address and change these problems, yet the relationships persist. A major focus of UK government policy is the crime and disorder which is prevalent in these areas and often attributed to young people. The difficulties of living and growing up in such areas are acknowledged, but much social and criminal justice policy focuses on punishing young people and addressing their individual “risk factors” rather than the structural and social issues at the root of the problem. The interventions that are offered in these neighborhoods are focused on the futures of children and young people rather than to the issues they confront on a day to day basis in the here and now. This paper looks at some of the theories about geography, crime and deprivation, and some of the neighborhood policies introduced in the UK to address the problems before considering young people’s views about living in these areas.

Geographic Concentrations of Crime – “Hot Spots”

It is well established that crime happens in some places much more t
han in others, and despite changes in the population, crime rates in these areas have been found to be surprisingly stable over time. Criminologists have a long history of the study of the geography of crime (Reiss, 1986). Bottoms and Wiles (1986) identify an interest in this topic in Europe from the 19th Century, and in the US important work on this issue was developed by the “Chicago School” in the early part of the 20th Century (Shaw & McKay, 1942). High crime areas are usually identified from police data about the location of recorded crime (increasingly used to identify “hot spots” for problem focused policing, e.g. Bennett, 1995). Whilst the use of official police data is not without its critics (Mawby, 1989) it is generally accepted as a good measure of the amount and location of crime.

As well as high concentrations of crime, and thus victims of crime, these places also have high concentrations of those who commit the crime. Offenders tend to travel relatively short distances to commit their crimes (Wiles & Costello, 2000), not straying far from places which they know. We all feel more comfortable in places with which we are familiar, carrying internal cognitive maps that shape our movement to a large extent (Brantingham & Brantingham (1981) in Bottoms, 2007). Offenders are no different. Another important reason for this co-terminosity of crime and criminals is that that victims and offenders are not two separate groups as a high proportion of offenders have also been victims of crime (e.g. Armstrong et al 2005, Smith 2004b). These studies do not identify whether victimization and offending happened in the same place, or in the place where the victim/offender lived, but much victimization does occur at or near the homes of victims.

All of this has raised the question of whether the concentration of crime and offenders in particular locations is something related to place or something to do with the people who live there.

Theories of Crime and Place

The study of “variations in offences, offending and disorder across relatively small areas” has been called “socio-spatial” criminology (Bottoms, 2007p. 529). The term acknowledges two aspects to understanding these locations of crime: the physical environment and the social interactions of the people in them. A range of theories have been proposed, some of which will be briefly considered under the headings of: physical characteristics of the areas, local economic factors, social aspects of the community, and individual characteristics of residents.

Physical Characteristics of the Area

The most frequently cited theory about the physical environment as a cause of crime in an area is the “broken windows” thesis (Wilson & Kelling, 1982). This work argues that if the physical environment is uncared for, with abandoned buildings, run down properties, and broken windows, this will encourage low level crime and “incivilities” which will gradually escalate.

“One unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing. … it is not inevitable that serious crime will flourish or violent attacks on strangers will occur. But many residents will think that crime, especially violent crime, is on the rise, and they will modify their behavior accordingly. … drugs will change hands, prostitutes will solicit, and cars will be stripped.” (Wilson & Kelling, 1982 p. 30)

“Broken windows” was here being used as a metaphor to argue that low level disreputable behavior in a place, if left unchecked, can escalate to more serious criminal activity: acceptance of street drunkenness and graffiti can lead to crimes such as vandalism and gradually allow more serious crimes to occur. This work is frequently cited as leading to so-called “zero tolerance” policing, an approach that has since been discredited (Dixon, 1999), though the commonly held view that the appearance of an area can affect the likelihood of crime has not.

Another theory about the role of the physical environment in creating crime, or in this case opportunity for crime, was the notion of “defensible space” (Newman, 1972). In this work, Newman argued that many places, particularly many post-war social housing developments, had design features that made criminal and anti-social activity much more likely. For instance, communal space quickly becomes subject to littering, graffiti, and vandalism because no one identifies the space as their own. Newman argued that more attention should be given to reducing opportunity for crime when designing housing developments, and that the restructuring of the physical layout of areas could reduce crime. This approach has been influential in changing the way in which housing areas are designed, but has not been accepted as a fundamental explanation for the concentration of crime in particular locations.

Local Economic Factors

Poverty, disadvantage, and deprivation are well known characteristics of high crime areas which often have high levels of unemployment and people living on welfare benefits. Many of these areas, sometimes called “sink estates”, contain predominantly social housing or low rent properties, and attract people with limited incomes who cannot afford to live elsewhere. Bottoms and Wiles (1986) showed how the housing market can impact on the crime rate in an area by affecting the social composition of the area, and that the housing market can perpetuate or reverse the cycle of criminality in an area. Other studies have revealed how these areas can attract alternative economies such as markets for stolen goods and drugs (MacDonald & Marsh 2005), with their attendant crime problems.

The relationship between crime and poverty is not, however, straightforward. Some types of crime are more related to poverty than others. Fagan and Davies (2004) argue that disadvantage makes neighbourhoods more susceptible to homicide and violence, although Kelly (2000) found that property crime is related to levels of poverty but violent crime is more related to inequality than to poverty per se.

It should also be remembered that not all areas of poverty and deprivation are areas of high crime (Hirschfield & Bowers, 1997), which begs the question of why some poor areas have large amounts of crime and others do not. This has led to explorations and theories about the characteristics of residents and social aspects of the area.

Social Aspects of the Community

One of the first and perhaps most influential social explanation for the high incidence of crime in some areas is “social disorganization” (Shaw & McKay, 1942) which argues that a lack of stability in the area makes it difficult for the community to control the behaviors of those within it. This fundamental idea is at the root of more recent theories of “social cohesion” (Hirschfield & Bowers, 1997) and “collective efficacy” (Sampson & Raudenbush, 1999). These concepts have much in common with each other and with a further notion, social capital (Boeck, 2009).

“Socially cohesive areas can be defined as areas with relatively high levels of interaction between residents and a strong sense of community. By contrast, areas lacking in cohesion, or socially disorganized or disintegrated areas, do not have such well defined social networks and it is often the case that the residents of these areas share very few common interests.” (Hirschfield & Bowers, 1997, p. 1275)

Levels of crime have been found to be significantly lower than expected in disadvantaged areas with high levels of social cohesion and vice versa (Hirschfield & Bowers,1997), though social cohesion can also lead to fragmentation in communities should this cohesion be particularly strong within sub-groups to the exclusion of other members of the community. Two components of social cohesion were identified–one related to aspects of social control, and the other they called “ethnic mixing”, which was about transience in the population. The two aspects were found to be related to different types of crime: burglary was more common where ethnic mixing was high and juvenile crime more frequent in areas with low social control.

“Collective efficacy” is seen to be a mechanism for inhibiting the amount of crime in a neighborhood (Sampson & Raudenbush, 1999). It “incorporates both a static ‘relations of trust’ dimension and a more action-oriented ‘willingness to intervene’ dimension.” (Bottoms, 2007, p. 555). This concept does not acknowledge its potentially negative role, as does social cohesion and the idea of social capital. Two types of social capital have been identified: “bridging” and “bonded”. Many young offenders have strong “bonded” social capital (Boeck, 2009), which means their relations of trust and willingness to intervene are related to a few key individuals in their life, and actually works against neighborhood collective efficacy. More broadly based “bridging” social capital would suggest some investment in a wider range of people, and thus maybe in their local neighborhood.

Social cohesion (or bonded social capital) and isolation may be features that can lead to territoriality amongst young people, where they gain respect from representing their neighborhoods (Kintrea, et al 2008). Although this has been described as “a coping mechanism for young people living in poverty” (p. 2), it can have severe consequences for the young people involved (usually young men), such as the recent deaths linked to the so-called post-code gangs in Sheffield (e.g. Harvey, 2009). At a less extreme level, such attachment limits their travel outside their “territory” because of fear of violence, and in turn restricts their access to education, leisure and relationships. Although the motivation for belonging to groups may be one of security and wanting to feel safe (McKulloch et al 2006), an unfortunate consequence of this behavior is that groups of young people, particularly young men, are frequently viewed with suspicion even though their activities are quite innocent, and opportunities for these young people are severely constrained.

Individual Characteristics of Residents

This explanation of high crime neighborhoods is based on the location of offenders rather than offences, and proposes that high levels of crime occur because more people who live in an area are willing to commit crime. Thus, the individual characteristics of the residents of a particular area are a more important determinant of the amount of crime in the area than the social relations between the residents. A long standing explanation is the notion of an “underclass” (Murray, 1990): “a subset of poor people who chronically live off mainstream society (directly through welfare or indirectly through crime) without participating in it” (p.5), though there is much debate and argument about the validity and ethics of such a concept.

The current favored individual explanation is that the determining characteristics of offenders and potential offenders can be identified by “risk factors”. These are particularly related to children and young people and used as a way of predicting their individual involvement in crime (Farrington, 2000). These risk factors relate to four domains: family, school, community, and individual/peer factors (Armstrong et al, 2005). The factors in the community domain are attachment to the neighborhood, community disorganization and neglect, and availability of drugs, all assessed by self-report of the individual. Thus, somewhat perversely, an individual’s perception of their neighborhood in terms of its social characteristics is a component of a measure of their individual likelihood of offending. Substantial research has been undertaken about risk factors and they are well validated, yet it must be acknowledged that proponents of this approach do recognize its limitations and the need for more research to understand the means by which risk factors work (Farrington 2000).

Combination/interrelationship of Theories

“Communities that suffer high rates of crime are often also characterized by poor housing, deprivation, exclusion, poor educational achievement, pollution and the like. This is not a coincidence. A wide range of social and physical variables contribute to and are contributed to by crime risk, both singly and in interaction. … Social variables may both drive and be driven by crime and perceptions of crime, or be manifestations of other variables, overt or subtle.” (Pease, 2001, p. 414)

Many of the above studies of specific causes or inhibitors of crime in an area acknowledge that this is a complex issue, and that some interplay of features is likely. Neighborhood and community context may affect or create individual and social risk factors. For instance, several studies have identified the ways in which living on limited incomes in areas of high deprivation may places stresses on family relationships and influence parenting practices (Weatherburn & Lind, 1998; Smith, 2002, 2004a) in ways that will be identified as individual risk factors. Neighborhood risk factors will inevitably be more apparent in public housing areas which lack the resources to address them, creating circular arguments about individual and community risk.

A range of studies have attempted to tease out what these inter-relationships might be. Tseloni et al (2002) discovered that lone parent households were the most at risk of crime victimization, and these households are generally more prevalent in areas of high deprivation. Oberwittler (2005) argues that young people from disadvantaged areas are likely to spend much of their time in local areas and have most of their friends from the same area, and thus their anti-social and criminal behavior will occur there too.

An attempt to explain the relationship between individual criminality and neighborhood criminality identified three aspects of areas that relate to levels of crime (Wikstrom & Loeber, 2000). These are “temptations” “provocations” (risk characteristics), and “social controls” (protective), the mix of which will affect the likelihood of crime being committed in the area. Areas of social disadvantage tend to have more risk characteristics and less protective ones. In a detailed analysis of the interrelationship of individual risk factors, offending behavior and neighborhood disadvantage they found that the young people most affected by their environment were those with mid range individual risk and protective factors. Those with high risk were most likely to be involved in offending whatever the nature of their neighborhood, and those with low risk and high protection were unlikely to be involved in offending whatever the neighborhood. However, those with a balance and therefore moderate risk/protection were much more likely to be involved in offending if they lived in disadvantaged areas. Reiss (1986) shows this is not a new finding:

“a boy living in a high-crime-rate area was far more likely to be delinquent than the same status boy in a low crime neighbourhood … suggesting that these neighbourhoods are organised in ways that engender delinquency.” (p.11, quoting Reiss & Rhodes, 1961).

He argues that this is because the peer networks of young people are organized differently in the two types of neighborhood, with those from “higher status” areas being linked to schools and clubs, whereas those in “lower status” communities are organized around “local street corner groups” (Reiss, 1986, p.12).

Recently the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime has identified more nuanced ways in which neighborhood seems to impact upon involvement in crime (McVie & Norris, 2006a, 2006b). The nature of this study meant that analyses could be undertaken of relatively small neighborhoods of 4,500-5,000 residents that had local relevance, overcoming the problems of many area based initiatives that tend to focus on areas bigger than the neighborhoods within which people interact and engage (Camina, 2004; Lupton, 2003) and do not necessarily have resonance with the local population. As a long-term longitudinal study, information was available about the young people’s involvement in crime from age 12 to age 16 enabling the identification of patterns over time. Data about the neighborhoods were obtained from external official sources as well as from residents and young people. What emerged from their detailed analysis was that whilst those involved in property offending were more likely to live in neighborhoods with greater levels of deprivation and instability than those who did not get involved in such offending, individual factors had a greater impact on offending generally than neighborhood factors, the most significant individual factor being “impulsivity”. However, neighborhood did affect desistance from crime, with those living in deprived areas being less likely to have ceased to be involved in offending at age 16. They argue that:

“Such evidence highlights the contextual importance of the places that young people grow up, and is broadly supportive of Sampson and Laub’s (1993) theory that social stress within neighbourhoods acts as an inhibitor to the formation of strong social bonds which are necessary to enable young people to ‘grow out’ of crime.” (2006a,p. 24).

Government initiatives to address community problems

The New Labour Government which was elected in the UK in 1997 had a commitment to be “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”. Their policies have acknowledged the link between deprivation and crime (Social Exclusion Unit, 2000) in the range of Area Based Initiatives (ABI’s) focused on areas of high crime and high deprivation that have been implemented. Evidence for the success of such projects is mixed, with Sure Start, the initiative which aimed to improve services and outcomes for pre-school children and their families, being hailed as the most successful (Melhuish & Belsky, 2008).

Perhaps the most ambitious program was, and is, New Deal for Communities, a comprehensive ten year investment plan to rejuvenate some of the most deprived areas in England by tackling five key themes: poor job prospects, high levels of crime, educational under-achievement, poor health, and problems with housing and the physical environment. This project is being comprehensively evaluated and interim results show a modest reduction in crime, but a more substantial reduction in the fear of crime and increase in trust in the police (Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research, 2005). Research for this project (Marshall, 2004) found the deprived areas in which they were working had higher proportions of young people (aged 16-24) than the national average and that more of these young people were from minority ethnic groups. It also found that the young people in these areas had more difficult circumstances and that they were less engaged with their localities and were more difficult to engage with the project. Much of the work in these projects has been focused on young people to improve their participation and improve services and facilities for them. Such initiatives do not however always lead to positive outcomes, particularly for young people. Attempts to deal with the problems in an area and the people who are perceived to create those problems, can lead to them being more and more marginalized and excluded rather than included (Hallsworth & Stephenson 2008). A conclusion of the interim research on New Deal for Communities (NDC) is that:

“younger people tend to miss out: experience emerging from the NDC Programme, in line with that arising from previous ABIs, is that young people can miss out; partnerships may need to ‘youth proof’ their activities: in relation to consultation, communication, project development, and involvement in Boards; long term transformation is about what happens to younger people.” (Centre for RegionalEconomic and Social Research, 2005, p. 296).

The one fundamental feature of these areas that is the hardest to deal with is poverty. The people who live in these areas live on low incomes and have very little opportunity to improve their economic status. Statistics show that despite an increased focus and investment in education by successive governments in recent years, there has been no real change in the social mobility of individuals in the UK since 1970 (Cabinet Office, 2008). Little research has been conducted into the social mobility of geographic areas and the drivers for bringing about economic change in a community, and all the rhetoric suggests that neighborhoods do not change easily. As the social mobility of individuals improves, they tend to move away from the deprived areas. What evidence there is, suggests that the housing market is a key driver of economic change in a community (Bottoms & Wiles, 1986), but even here, the tendency is for people of higher social economic status to move into the areas and push out those of lower economic status, rather than the economic status of current residents being improved. A recent review of changes in indicators of poverty over the last ten years (Palmer, et al 2008) supports this view. Although there was significant improvement in many aspects in the first half of this period, many of these improvements have stabilized or declined in the latter half. Significantly, a feature which has remained constant over the whole period is the geographic concentration of those claiming out of work benefits. The total number of people in very low income households has also worsened during this time, as has young adults in low income households, although children in low income households has improved. These figures suggest that the government has made some progress in meeting its target to reduce child poverty, but maybe at the expense of young adults, for whom many of the indicators have worsened. The continuing concentration of those claiming benefits supports the view that neighborhood deprivation has not changed over this time.

A program which was specifically focused on reducing crime in deprived neighborhoods was the On Track project. This was developed as part of the government’s Crime Reduction Program (Home Office, 2000). On Track was a crime prevention initiative targeted at small neighborhood areas of high crime and high deprivation (France, et al 2004). Designed with a very specific brief to target children at risk of future offending and their families (using the risk factor paradigm), and to implement a range of interventions that had been proven to be effective in other contexts, the evaluation offered some interesting lessons in working in these areas and new understandings about living in those areas (Camina, 2004; Hine, 2004; Hine & Harrington, 2004). The evaluation demonstrated some improvement in the risk factors of individual children living in the areas (Bhabra, et al 2006), particularly in the domains of school and family, but neighborhood risk factors remained the same or worsened.

An area based initiative that is not government funded is Communities that Care. This project acknowledges the importance of community factors in the generation of crime and involves communities in addressing their local risk factors (Crow, et al 2004). It is a process for identifying and targeting local area issues which are most important to the community, rather than a specific type of intervention and thus very different in ethos to most government funded initiatives. The approach was developed in the U.S. where it has proved to be successful in reducing risk and crime in the community (Feinberg, et al 2007), but evaluation in the UK has shown mixed results (Crow, et al 2004).

The views of people living in these areas

An aspect of deprived neighborhoods that has received relatively little attention in academic research and government approaches to neighborhood issues is the views and understandings of the people who live in those areas, particularly children and young people who, arguably, are affected most significantly by their surroundings. The problems that government policy attempt to address such as poverty, unemployment, low educational achievement, crime, poor health, etc., are problems that accumulate in areas of high deprivation. They are all problems that people who live there have to face on a day to day basis. These are the conditions in which children and young people grow up and learn to survive and manage their lives. In these difficult circumstances, it is not surprising that despite their desires to live a “normal” life, they often end up being unable to do so. This is something frequently forgotten by policy makers.

Both adults and young people are acutely aware of the reputation of the areas within which they live and the ways in which they are disadvantaged as a consequence. This has been well known since the earliest studies (e,g. Xanthos, 1981). However, despite this reputation residents generally find many positive features about living in these areas, the most important of which is the social aspect of the place–the people living there:

“I was really worried because of everything I’d heard about **** and then I moved here. I’ve never met such nice people, nice neighbours.” (Camina, 2004, p. 16).

Camina’s research explored the perceptions of different groups living and working in the community in four of the high crime/high deprivation areas taking part in the On Track project (France, et al 2004). She found that residents of all ages usually had something positive to say about their area, whereas the professionals who worked there rarely did. She suggests that professionals and the media reinforce the negative reputations of these areas and that residents have little opportunity to challenge this view. Research in schools has shown that children and young people have an acute awareness of their environment and the safe and not so safe places within it (Hine 2005 unpublished). Conversations with children and young people living in high crime areas reveal how they understand and often parody the reputation of their area. They say things like “the best thing about the area was being able to get out of it” (Camina. 2004 p. 18), and “We’re very fast runners – helps me dodge the bullets as I run for the bus.” (Haw, 2006) or “The bus bypasses [Urbanfields]...won’t stop because the wheels’ll get nicked” (Haw, 2006).

At the same time, residents see the problems in their areas too yet feel that because of the reputation of the area these are less likely to be addressed. The biggest concern of many residents was that there areas should be “cleaned up” (Camina, 2004). This is wider than an issue of litter or graffiti. These neighborhoods tend to have more cars, white goods and furniture abandoned in public areas, along with the detritus of drug and alcohol use. All of these items are seen by adults to pose a risk for their children, though for some children such items can be fun and interesting playthings. The risk, however, is not just about their physical safety, as some litter such as abandoned stolen cars can lead to trouble with the police (Hine, 2007). Both adults and children want more safe places for children to play.

Not all the social aspects of the neighborhoods are seen to be good. A common complaint, particularly among younger children, was the behavior of “teenagers” or older children, such as “older kids on motor bikes wreck all the fields and that” and “Teenagers smash bottles and things” (Camina, 2004, p. 26). Often this tension is related to competition for the use of limited space in the neighbourhood. This complaint is mirrored by the British Crime Survey (Wood, 2004) which also found that a big problem for young people (aged 16-24) was “teenagers hanging around”. This was the biggest problem in the most deprived areas, which had higher levels of perceived antisocial behavior. The survey measured different types of “anti-social behavior”, some of which related to physical events, such as litter and graffiti, and some of which related to social events, such as teenagers hanging around and noisy neighbors. Whilst the analysis did look at some specific types of incident it unfortunately did not compare the two broad categories, though the indications are that both the physical and the social incidents are higher and felt to be more of a problem in so-called “hard-pressed” areas.

In terms of the physical space in these neighborhoods, the British Crime Survey now asks questions about respondent’s perceptions of problems in their area. The results show that people living in deprived areas perceive more disorder in their areas than those living in more affluent areas (Wood, 2004).

“Those living in hard-pressed areas had odds of perceiving high levels that were four times higher than those in wealthy achiever areas. Area characteristics were the strongest predictors of perceptions of high levels of ASB, but victims of crime and young people were also more likely to be in this category. ” (p 6).


Where you live is important. It tends to say something about your economic circumstances and shapes much of your social world. Place frames the everyday context of the lives of children and young people, and is particularly important for children and young people living in areas of high deprivation. They spend more of their time in these places as their opportunities for being elsewhere are limited. The aspirations of these young people are not very different from the aspirations of children and young people living in more affluent areas, with their hopes for a reasonable job, their own home and a family (Furlong & Cartmel, 2007). However, the context of their lives often makes it more difficult to achieve those aspirations.

A recent report by the Cabinet Office (2008) suggests that young people living in areas of high deprivation are “less likely to develop ambitious, achievable aspirations” (p 2), but does not acknowledge that their aspirations may actually be more realistic for their circumstances. The report acknowledges the areas have “close knit social networks, a sense of isolation from broader opportunities and a history of economic decline” (p 2) and that these young people have a limited awareness of the options open to them, lack confidence and have a sense of fatalism. The report suggests that “young people’s aspirations are being indirectly influenced by their environment from before birth” (p.12 emphasis in original) and that their attitudes are affected by teacher’s low expectations, the media and experience of what people do in their local neighborhood.

Despite the similarity of many features of the lives of young people who live in these areas, it should not be assumed that they inevitably have similar experiences. Their lives are frequently impacted by unpredictable “critical moments”, such as serious illness, death or separation in the family. These events can have a profound impact sending them in very different directions, many of which are undesirable (MacDonald & Marsh, 2005). At the same time many young people survive such events without problematic consequences, and are often described as “resilient”. There is a substantial search for the causes and predictors of “resilience” in a range of areas, developing ideas which began in health (Rutter, 2000). Ungar (2004) suggests that the concept of resilience should be looked at differently in relation to the behavior of most young people. Even the most problematic behavior, when viewed from the perspective of the young person, can be understood as a reasonable response to their circumstances, as a demonstration of resilience. The strengths that young people develop in difficult circumstances are often ignored by a focus on their shortcomings and deficits.

What happens within local neighborhoods is important, but it should not be forgotten that these things do not happen in isolation. They take place within a wider social and economic context (Bottoms, 2007), and changes in this context can have a profound and unexpected effect on these neighborhoods. Neighborhoods are not fixed entities independent of the residents (Lupton, 2003). They are being constantly re-created by the people who live in them, offering hope that they can change.

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