Lancaster University

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01/21/2003 13:26:25

The numbers of young people coming before the courts for the first time are falling dramatically, whilst those who do so are far more likely to become persistent offenders than 20 years ago, according to new research carried out by Lancaster researchers.

Results of the study suggest that cautioning is successful in ensuring that only the most difficult juvenile offenders face the court system. Research by Professor Keith Soothill and Brian Francis, found that 40 per cent of a sample of male 10-14 year olds who had their first appearance in court in the 1960s went on to commit at least four further crimes. By comparison, 69 per cent of males of that age who came to court in the 1980s and early 1990s became persistent offenders.

The overall aim of the research was to examine two important areas of the study of crime - whether different generations show different patterns of offending, and whether the likelihood of someone committing various types of offence changes over time.

For the study into what experts call the 'delinquent generations' and 'criminal careers' debates, Professor Soothill and his team looked at people born in 1953, 1958, 1963, 1968, 1973 and 1978. Home Office records were examined relating to all convictions from 1963 to 1999. The researchers looked at the issue of recruitment into crime by examining offenders' first convictions and noting the main offence at that time.

Their report says that this initial conviction is important as it is likely to label the individual as a particular type of offender - a thief, a sex offender, a robber, and so on. The research found, however, that there are significant and important changes, both over age and over time in the 'recruitment offence mix'. Professor Soothill says: "At young ages, male offenders are likely to be first convicted of burglary or theft. However, new male recruits into crime in their 20s are less often burglars and more likely to be involved in violence. "Older male recruits in their 40s are likely to start a criminal record with a motoring or violence offence."

Female recruits into crime at all ages were in the main thieves, though deception came a strong second in the 20 to 30 age group.

The research shows that with the passing of the years there have been significant changes in patterns of criminal records. The proportion of under-16 year old offenders who are recruited into crime with a theft offence has declined dramatically for those born in the later birth year groups examined. Says Professor Soothill: "This shows the effect of cautioning policy in keeping young offenders from gaining a criminal record for less serious offences.

"For example, a young person who commits a theft is now likely to receive a caution, while those accused of robbery or violence are much more likely to go straight to court. As a result, the first offenders who appear before court today tend to have committed a more serious crime or already have 'form' for petty crime."