In 2011, as a volunteer youth worker in St Pauls, I met a man who worked for an organisation in Bristol that provided counselling to troubled young people. He told me that sometimes they came to see him without an appointment, raging over a perceived insult or threat from one of their peers. These young men often admitted if he wasn’t there to talk to they might have taken matters into their own hands with violence.
The counsellor relayed a conversation he’d had with an officer from the local Criminal Investigation Department that has always stuck with me. For each murder in this country, said the officer, the State on average shells out £1 million for the costs of the investigation, prosecution, and imprisonment of the offender. By the counsellor’s own estimates, he had helped prevent at least three murders by talking to young people he knew were capable of the crime.
The cost of crime
The cost of keeping someone in a Young Offenders Institute is a whopping £76,000 per year. Compare that to Clifton College, one of the top public schools in Bristol which currently charges between £12-14k per term for an Upper School full-time boarder. Eton College, meanwhile, charges £48,501 – £27,499 shy of the cost of imprisoning a young person. The difference in outcomes for the young person leaving these institutions could not be greater.
It gets worse. For children released from custody in the year ending 2018, over 65% went on to reoffend and reoffending by ex-prisoners reportedly costs society at least £15bn per year. Prison is clearly not only expensive but ineffective in deterring future crime from those who serve time in them.
In what feels like a perennial news story, experts and charities have once again raised the alarm about rising youth violence in the UK and warn there could be a surge of violence this summer.
Overstretched youth services in Bristol and beyond are ill-equipped to grapple with the fallout from Covid lockdowns, mental health problems and months out of education, after over a decade of austerity. This year alone, already 20 teenagers have been fatally shot or stabbed in London, and 11 in the West Midlands.
In Bristol we haven’t seen these sorts of figures due to a much smaller population and a lot of luck, in my opinion, as there has been violence between young men including stabbings, beatings and even a drive-by shooting in the suburbs of South Bristol recently.
Preventing not responding
This is the situation those of us in the youth sector and the police are trying to prevent, while at the same time battling for the financial resources to make a difference. I look at the costs of crime and wonder why we struggle to get sufficient funding when so much of our work concerns the reduction and prevention of crime.
The evidence basis for cutting offending is well known, for example by following the preventative model adopted in Scotland in response to Glasgow’s knife crime crisis. But for that to happen, there must, unfortunately, be the political will at the heart of government to change direction and listen to the experts on the ground – the youth workers, young people, lawyers, activists and effected communities.
Just imagine if we redirected public money away from privately-run prison providers and state-run prisons, and instead used the £76,000 to employ three full time youth workers for a whole year per child? To put it in perspective, I am currently planning a youth project in St Pauls with an estimated weekly outgoing of £350. This level of money would keep it going for four years.
We cannot allow this situation to continue. When it comes to crime, I often tell people prevention is cheaper than the cure. I am not suggesting we let the guilty go free, but that we prioritise reducing the numbers that end up in court in the first place.
It is reassuring that a Ministry of Justice White Paper, for example, recommended cutting re-offending by having “schools with security, rather than prisons with education”. But this still focuses on responding to crime rather than preventing it.
Without serious investment into communities and the organisations best suited to supporting our young people, I fear I will be writing this article again next year. Here’s hoping.
Delroy Hibbert is the founder of Freestyle Bristol, a website curated by young people in the city in response to the events of 2020. They are currently fundraising in order to pay young volunteers for their work.
Correction: This article initially stated that Clifton College tuition fees for full-time boarders ranged between £12-14k a year. It has been corrected to £12-14k per term.