Youth Culture and Crime in Australia

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Some cultural groups are shaped by a shared background and experience, such as birthplace-related cultural groups. Other groups emerge or develop because the members share a distinct or unusual commonality. A cultural group is a group held together by shared ideas, emotions, attitudes and values. (Lawson & Heaton 1999) Youth culture is primarily about group members being the same age, living close to each other and sharing similar age-related experiences.

Group membership thrives on shared experience and young people are committed to a sense of belonging and a commonality of purpose. Teenager's behaviour can be shaped by group convention, and pressure from their peers accounts for a lot of shared behaviour and experience, but do young people commit crime more often than adults? (Cobb 1998) When young people commit crime, why do they do it? Are they bowing to peer pressure, taking risks, being teenagers or becoming criminals? Does drug and alcohol consumption, unemployment or family background, make any difference to the incidence of criminal activity in the young? In this paper, I will look at the experience of young people in Australia, crime and young people and the way youth culture is perceived.

Recently I did a Google search on the Internet for Youth + Crime and found 3,480,000 matching records. Obviously there is a lot of interest in young people and crime. The media sometimes portrays young people as thugs and lay-abouts who are just waiting for the opportunity to steal, harm or vandalise. When I asked friends and neighbours about their perceptions of young people and crime, they all said they thought young people committed more crimes than older people committed.

In Australia there are no across-the-board data kept about offenders and age. However, from South Australia, Queensland and Victoria there is information available about who is alleged to have committed crimes and whom the police process. People aged 15 to 19 years are more likely to be processed by police for committing a crime and their alleged offending rate is four times the average for the remainder of the population.

In the three states represented, juveniles committed approximately 5% of the homicides, 12% of sexual assaults and 23% of robberies. Twenty eight percent of reported car thefts were committed by juveniles and young people committed approximately 13% of assaults. (AIC 2003) Young women commit robbery three times more often than older women. Sixty percent of the crime committed by young people is theft (usually car theft and petty theft) and overall, is less serious than the crime committed by adults. Only about one quarter of young people re-offend. (UOB 2004) The NSW police attribute 50% of assaults on trains, to youths. (Geason & Wilson 1990)

These figures need to be read in light of the knowledge that young people are put through police processes more often than other groups of people. In fact, eighty percent of young Australians have been stopped by police at some time and young people are far more likely to be asked to move on or be subject to a police search. (NCOSS 2002) Whether youths have offended or not, they can be searched, strip-searched and processed if they are under suspicion of criminal activity. This is most likely to occur if they are in a group and in a public place or alone and seemingly loitering. (Edwards 1999)

Some young people commit crimes in the belief they are taking a risk but not hurting anyone, so to them, it is not a crime. There is a chance for success, freedom and excitement in their actions. (Presdee 1994) Young people have turned to prostitution and did not know they were criminals. Even after being arrested for possession of drugs, some young women were still unaware that their behaviour was classed as criminal. (Perkins 1991) When asked if they would commit a crime if they knew surveillance cameras were operating, 40% of youths said they would still offend. (Isnard 2001) Thus, for some young people, offending seems to be substantially about thrills and risk-taking.

Drug taking, alcohol and family background all have a part to play in the lives of young people and their propensity for crime. The growing number of young people who have been abandoned, and who live on the streets, is known to contribute to street crime. (Goldsmith, Israel & Daly 2003) Young people who were bullies at school are more likely to use alcohol and drugs and commit crime. (Morrison 2001) A young person who gets addicted to heroin will eventually be arrested for some crime. (Braithwaite 2002) Prostitution and crime are also closely linked, according to Perkins. (1991) She found that forty percent of juvenile prostitutes she interviewed, had been in trouble with police (mainly for drug offences), compared to about 5% for her two comparison groups - students and health workers.

As an expression of cultural belonging, graffiti is a way to define ground, a way of showing you belong. (Bandaranaike 2001) Not everyone sees it that way. A poll by the rail authority in NSW, found that 80% of regular train passengers were concerned about vandalism and graffiti. Recommendations made after the study, included, " ... providing challenges ... to raise young people's self esteem ... ". (Geason & Wilson 1990) Thus, graffiti and vandalism are seen as realms of youth culture. Bandaranaike (2001) found that young people who are graffitists are perceived as criminals by the community at large and thought most likely to be associated with robbery, drugs and assault. Graffiti was allegedly the link between five young people, who murdered a woman after abducting her from a railway station. (Geason & Wilson 1990)

In Australia, there are not a lot of youth gangs whose purpose is to commit crime. Single young people or two people in tandem, most often are the offenders. (NCOSS 2002) In the UK, children as young as eleven years old belong to gangs, whose main object is to commit crime. (Thomas 2003) However, the SANS Internet Storm Centre on the Gold Coast in Queensland are warning people to be aware of Internet gangs. Marcus Sachs from SANS reported on the Today Show that there are on-line communities who use the Internet to bully and harass people, commit credit card fraud and steal information and goods. The group members meet via the Internet, plan their crimes, meet in chat rooms and brag about their successes. Sachs estimated the average age of gang members is 17 years.

There might not be many crime-reliant gangs in Australia but there are strategies in place to cope with gang-related incidents and crime by young people. Being together is a common way of being for many young people but some adults and authorities don't like to see young people in a group. In several states of Australia, police have been given the power to do name checks, move people on and search for weapons, on young people. In NSW, people under sixteen years of age, can be physically removed from danger eg, if they are at risk of committing a crime or in danger of being harmed. Unfortunately, ninety percent of young people removed during 1999, under this legislation, were indigenous Australians. (White 2004)

Bing Crosby music and bright lighting have been used in an attempt to stop young people gathering in malls and at railway stations. Described in the media as a crime-fighting initiative this was supposed to stop young people indulging in a passion for meeting in a public place then chatting and hanging out together. Apparently, Bing Crosby doesn't appeal to 17 and 18 year olds. (Edwards 1999) I wonder what would happen if a huge group of over 65 year olds gathered in malls, just to listen to Bing Crosby over the PA system? Would the police be called to move them on? Would the group members be strip-searched, just because they were thought to be loitering? Probably not, as relevant legislation that permits such police control does not extend to older Australians. According to White (2004) the legislation re police powers in these instances, came about because, "... the political and economic conditions for potential growth in gang-related behaviour presently exist, and that action is required now in order to forestall future problems." So, we don't have a measurable problem with gangs and crime in Australia but we are ready when it happens. I think I agree with Thomas (2003), when they write that it would be more effective and easier to combat the economic and political conditions that perpetuate crime.

When speaking of the rate of crime committed by young people, it is interesting to note that the media rarely portray teenagers as victims of crime. In Australia, grandparents are more likely to fear for the safety of their grandchildren than for themselves. (Graycar & Grabosky 2002 p 250) This is not surprising as young people are victims of crime far more often than they commit crime. If you think of abuse and victimisation by police, as a crime, then elderly people (over 65 years of age) are only one-fifth as likely to be a victim compared to young people. (Graycar & Grabosky 2002 p 240)

This is perhaps why many people think the police are victimising young people and especially indigenous youths. Police are not the only adults who are abusing young people. Of 9 600 sexual assaults in 1998, two thirds occurred in the victims household or by someone known to the victim and most were against young girls. (Chappell & Wilson 2000 p57) Approximately fifty percent of school children have been bullied by their peers, at least once and one student in five is bullied at least weekly. (Morrison 2001) School bullying has been around for a long time and will probably continue. (Morrison 2001) However there is a need to do more than reduce bullying in an effort to reduce crime by young people. Solutions that include a multi-pronged attack on homelessness, violence against youths, substance abuse and poor self image, will increase positive outcomes. (Cobb 1998) It is neither fair nor reasonable to expect that there will be a reduction in crime by young people when there is still violence perpetrated against them.


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