Ecological Youth Justice: Understanding the Social Ecology of Young People’s Prolific Offending

AuthorKevin Haines,Kate Williams,Diana F Johns
Published date01 April 2017
Date01 April 2017
Subject MatterArticles
665611YJJ0010.1177/1473225416665611Youth JusticeJohns et al.
Youth Justice
2017, Vol. 17(1) 3 –21
Ecological Youth Justice:
© The Author(s) 2016
Reprints and permissions:
Understanding the Social
DOI: 10.1177/1473225416665611
Ecology of Young People’s
Prolific Offending
Diana F Johns, Kate Williams and Kevin Haines
This article outlines a social-ecological approach to understanding young people’s prolific offending and effective
youth justice responses to it. Seeing young people through the lens of interactions and relationships – with family,
peers, community and the broader socio-cultural-political context – gives insight into the type of interventions
that can most effectively disrupt their offending and enhance their wellbeing. These insights have implications
for the way in which youth offending teams engage with young people, in their social context, to bring about
positive change in their lives. Effective interventions, we argue, focus on engaging young people in normalising
relationships, over time.
positive development, prolific offending, social ecology, young people, youth justice
Youth justice cohorts in England and Wales have shrunk: since 2006–2007, the number of
‘first time entrants’ has fallen by nearly 80 percent; since 2008–2009, the number of children
in custody has dropped by 58 percent (Youth Justice Annual Statistics,
This reduction has exposed a group of young people who are persistent, often prolific in
their reoffending. The vast majority of young people who can be diverted from further
offending are being diverted, and the group ‘left behind’ comprises those with the most
complex needs, manifest in the most challenging behaviours. Recent youth justice responses
to this group draw largely on a risk-focused, responsibilising narrative that prescribes more
intensive risk management through individualised ‘offender’ and offence-based interven-
tions. This article makes the case for a different approach, arguing that interrupting
persistent and prolific offending patterns requires a long-term, relationship-focused approach
Corresponding author:
Diana F Johns, School of Social and Political Sciences, The University of Melbourne, John Medley Building, Parkville,
VIC 3010, Australia.

Youth Justice 17(1)
that supports young people’s positive identity development in its social context. This moves
away from the pathologising of behaviour and its need to ‘fix’ the individual towards the
normalising of behaviour and working to understand and help address underlying issues.
The research on which this article draws examined young people’s prolific offending in
Wales. It comprised two distinct phases. In 2012, the Youth Justice Board Wales (YJB
Cymru), working with the Welsh Government, identified 303 young people – about 4 per-
cent of Wales’ youth justice cohort – as ‘prolific’ in their offending and profiled 117
(roughly one-third). The follow-up study (Johns, 2016) examined contextual factors and
reoffending among that original sample through analysis of youth offending team (YOT)
records, Police National Computer (PNC) reoffending data, in-depth case studies and
interviews with professionals and young people. Interviews with some of the (now) young
adults yielded rich qualitative insights into the support and social processes that helped
them move away from offending. These findings provide the empirical basis for the
social-ecological analysis presented here.
For illustrative purposes, we focus on a group of 12 young people – including one
young woman – living in a post-industrial community in Wales, and the YOT workers
who supervised and supported them through their teenage years. Pseudonyms are used to
protect identities. A social-ecological lens is applied as a way of exploring the interactions
and relationships between these young people and their particular social, cultural and
community setting. This article briefly critiques the dominant paradigm framing youth
justice, considers an alternative strengths-based approach to young people’s positive
development, explores literature considering the importance of relationships in working
with young people and outlines the social-ecological approach arising from it. This leads
into the analysis of the research findings from a social-ecological perspective that builds
upon existing models to examine the implications for working with young people
enmeshed in complex and persistent offending.
An Individualising, Risk-Based Paradigm
Both the dominant narrative and practice of youth justice are framed by a ‘risk-factor-
prevention’ paradigm that tends to conceive young people in terms of their problems, defi-
cits and pathologies (Robinson, 2015). This approach is seen by some as overly
managerialist and reductionist, oversimplifying children’s lives to ‘restricted bundles of
risks’ (Haines and Case, 2015: 87). From this perspective, over-reliance on risk assess-
ment tools (Asset and AssetPlus in the United Kingdom) can tend to focus attention and
resources too narrowly on ‘problem’ areas in children’s lives seen as directly related to
their offences (Ward, 2006). The tendency is to respond to a child’s excessive alcohol use,
for example, with a ‘substance misuse’ programme rather than working to understand and
change underlying causes. Identifying and individualising reoffending risk in this way
fails to account for wider economic and political factors that limit access and opportuni-
ties and thus significantly impact on young people’s lives, choices and social identities
(Barry, 2010; Bottrell, 2007; Bottrell and Armstrong, 2007).
The main criticism of a risk-factor approach is its overriding focus on individualising
the causes of – and therefore ‘solutions’ to – offending (Gray, 2013; Haines and Case,

Johns et al.
2015). Young people are ‘responsibilised’ for their attitudes, thinking and behaviour not-
withstanding the various social, situational and structural forces and conditions shaping
and influencing these factors (Gray, 2013; Haines and Case, 2015; Kemshall, 2008).
External factors are frequently side-lined by the focus on ‘dynamic risk factors’, or ‘crim-
inogenic needs’, factors which relate to offending and are seen as amenable to change – a
focus which ‘is a necessary but not sufficient condition for effective … interventions’
(Ward, 2006: 212, original emphasis). Risk-based models tend to focus on psychometric
and individualised psychosocial factors which can produce an isolated view of a young
person and ignore the wider historical, cultural and social structural context of their devel-
opment. A social-ecological framework, in contrast, directs attention to the interactions
and relationships within which offending arises, persists and is perpetuated.
Using Relationships to Support Positive Development
Two elements are essential here: building effective practitioner/young person relationship
(Drake et al., 2014; Sharpe, 2012), and using it to support positive youth development
(PYD) (Hill, 1999; Roth and Brooks-Gunn, 2003). While much of the literature around
effective working relationships pertains to adults and desistance (Leibrich, 1994; McNeill
et al., 2005), or to social work with vulnerable or involuntary clients (Trevithick, 2005;
Trotter, 1999), many of the principles equally apply to working with young people. These
centre on establishing rapport, building trust, modelling and conveying respect, empathy,
acceptance, honesty and genuineness (Leibrich, 1994; McNeill et al., 2005; Mason and
Prior, 2008; Trevithick, 2005). Legitimacy, as perceived by the young person, is essential
to effective working (Case and Haines, 2014, 2015; McNeill et al., 2005; Seymour, 2013).
Demonstrating respect for the young person’s rights and desires, and trust in their ability
to change and grow is also crucial. From a strengths-based perspective, this trust can help
to develop a young person’s sense of confidence and ‘self-belief in their capacity to
change’ (Lewis, 2014: 171). Relationships thus underpin young people’s engagement,
compliance and, ultimately, leaving offending behind (Robinson, 2014; Seymour, 2013).
Building effective working relationships requires time: continuity is critical (Ipsos
MORI, 2010; McNeill et al., 2005), as is frequency. Wilson (2013) found that ‘young
people who had more frequent contacts … were less likely to re-offend’ (p. 37). Effective
work with young people requires time for trust to develop gradually (Hill, 1999). Time is
essential both to allow children to mature out of offending behaviour and because young
people’s experience of and conceptions of time reflect cultural expectations embedded in
their social context (Brannen and Nilsen, 2002) and are thereby ‘shaped by interaction
with significant others’ (Woodman, 2011: 126). This insight has implications for under-
standing and working with young people in the context of their social relationships – the
proximal processes’ (see below) that shape their behaviour, development and orientation
towards others.
Relationship quality is also important. Positive relationships develop positive identi-
ties. Lewis’ (2014) findings attest to the ‘mutual caring’ aspect of ‘positive working rela-
tionships’ (p.170), which suggests a human...

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