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Poverty is driving crime and policing makes it worse

Young adults call for radical police reform focussed on tackling poverty, trauma, and structural racism.

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Heating or eating?

The Revolving Doors Agency has just (24 March 2021) published new research which finds that young adults, aged 18-25, who live in the most deprived parts of the country, feel robbed of any optimism about their future, because of frequent and traumatic encounters with the police. Young adults want police to identify and effectively respond to their health and human needs, to avoid them being drawn into a lifetime of crisis and crime.

The research explores guiding principles for trauma and poverty responsive policing from the perspective of 100 young adults who commit repeated low-level offences. Their accounts highlight how their experiences of policing is tied in a knot with their experiences of trauma, poverty and structural inequalities.

Context

People with histories of repeat offending have been rising, and now account for about 40% of all offenders. Revolving Doors argues that we need a smarter approach for intervening earlier and reducing this cycle of repeat low-level and non-violent offences that harm lives and communities.

Young adulthood is a critical time for intervention. Young adults aged 18-25 constitute less than 10 per cent of the UK population but make up to 30-40 per cent of all police cases. Evidence clearly shows that young adults do not reach full developmental maturity until age 25, and this lack of maturity can lead to unnecessary risk taking and impulsive behaviour. Many of these young adults are living in poverty, some are leaving care, large numbers are struggling with traumatic life events, some are at risk of sexual exploitation, and on turning 18 many experience a huge chasm between child-centred approaches and adult services in areas like housing, mental health and substance misuse.

A smarter approach would get young adults out of the criminal justice system and into support, freeing up police time to focus on serious and violent crime. A smarter approach would consider ‘causes of causes’ – looking behind the crime or even the immediate health need, and instead understand what is driving it – poverty, trauma and inequalities.

This research explores a set of guiding principles and approaches for trauma and poverty-responsive policing, taken from the perspective of people with lived experience of the revolving door. The report is built on qualitative evidence from 100 people with lived experience of the revolving door, documenting their experiences leading up to each police contact and exploring their needs, expectations and limitations at each stage of interaction with the police (pre-arrest, arrest, police custody, and charging).

The accounts of 100 people with lived experience of repeat contact with the police, found that:

  • They were in dire poverty, and most had to choose between heating or eating.
  • They did not trust police or other services and felt hopeless about their life chances.
  • They were known to the police from a very young age because they were victims of crime, such as child neglect, abuse, or exploitation; however, safeguarding concerns and support disappeared on their 18th
  • Mental health crises ended up being dealt with by the police because of a lack of mental health services.
  • They felt targeted by the police due to high crime rates in their local area and being labelled as ‘thugs’ for not being able to find a job.
  • Despite the best intention of police officers, every encounter young adults had with the police caused trauma and increased the perceived and real inequalities they face.

Key findings

  • Young adults who come into repeat contact with the police are likely to have experienced stacking experiences of trauma, poor health, structural inequalities and poverty which shaped the way they experienced their encounters with the police and how they judged the role and effectiveness of policing.
  • There is an inverse correlation between the number of times a young adult has encountered a policing response (including welfare, crisis, and criminal justice responses) and their perception of the effectiveness and fairness of police services.
  • Every encounter with police, regardless of welfare, crisis, or criminal justice context, appears to exacerbate trauma and perceived and real inequalities faced by young adults who are caught in the tangle of poverty, trauma, and structural inequalities.
  • Policing strategies must address disparities in both use of force and exercise discretion among young adults who face structural inequalities, due to poverty, race, and gender. They should review how operational policing tactics might currently be replicating the dynamics of existing personal or societal trauma, such as loss of power, autonomy, and safety.
  • Young adults who come into repeat contact with the criminal justice system are likely to distrust police services, alongside other services and authority figures, and they may avoid support because they believe that no one will be understanding or trustworthy. They often feel hopeless about their life circumstances or chances of recovery. Providing a peer outreach service can motivate individuals to engage with diversion services and comply with support and  treatment requirements.

Recommendations

  • Too many opportunities are being missed to identify the vulnerabilities and needs of young adults in police custody and during interview. Complex trauma can manifest in a range of ways, including impulsive and high-risk behaviours such as self-harm, and problematic substance use, or aggression often as means to gain control over their lives. Police officers should recognise that vulnerabilities can manifest in ways beside crying or self-harm. Young adults, even those with repeat experiences of police custody, may require assessment and support.
  • Policing strategies should acknowledge the prevalence of trauma among young adults who commit relatively low-level but repeat offences, as well as the impact trauma may have on how they experience high-stress situations and environments, such as being arrested and held in police custody. This research found that young adults routinely feel so disoriented and stressed in police custody that they did not understand the processes, their rights and obligations, the information given to them or requested from them. They subsequently pleaded guilty to simply speed up the process and leave the custody suite as soon as they could. This has a huge bearing on the procedures and fairness of our justice system, and it should be looked at as a priority by policing leaders.
  • People with experience of custody or interview were clear that it is not possible to create a trauma-informed police custody, which may aid rather than hinder a person’s recovery from trauma. Those developing policing strategies should consider reducing the use of police custody, whenever possible and appropriate. Investing in pre-arrest/at the point of arrest diversion and increasing the provision of voluntary interviews for vulnerable young adults who might be presenting for relatively low-level but repeat offences can reduce the trauma.

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