From Fenland delinquency to policing Peterborough’s streets and the power of prison education, researchers from the Institute of Criminology are engaged in the region to help reduce the harm crime can cause.

By engaging locally with research, you can end up pushing national agendas

Ruth Armstrong

Every day, on the streets of cities, towns and even villages across the East of England, young people take decisions that can – in a moment – alter the course of their life and the lives of others.

These events do not occur in a vacuum: the wrong combinations of environment, timing, people and experience can result in decades lost to crime and addiction – damaging communities and draining the resources of criminal justice services under increasing pressure.

This year, the University’s Institute of Criminology celebrates its 60th anniversary. Researchers from the Institute have spent years in the local region engaging with people at different points of these adverse cycles – from police and prison officers to kids on street corners – to build an evidence base for effective ways to reduce harm caused by criminality.

While providing prevention lessons for the UK and indeed the world, research that was kick-started and, in many cases, continues to run in the eastern region means that local policymakers have an opportunity to build on projects and findings uniquely relevant to their patch.

Perhaps none more so than the Peterborough Adolescent and Young Adult Development Study (PADS+): a large longitudinal study that has followed more than 700 young residents of Peterborough from the age of 12 to now over 24, as they navigate school, work, family and the law.

Streets of Peterborough 

Led by Professor Per-Olof Wikström, Director of the Centre for Analytic Criminology, the study uses waves of surveys conducted across 13 years that take a singular approach to data gathering. For a given day, the participants are asked to give hour-by-hour detail of where, when, how and with whom they have spent their time. This has been combined with psychological and genetic data, plus two huge surveys each of around 7,000 city residents, to create an extraordinary cross-section of young lives and communities in early 21st-century Britain.

“There is nothing else like this study,” says Wikström. “We have the kind of detail other studies simply don’t have. We can demonstrate not just where ‘hot spots’ of crime occur, but why – which can help us predict future crime-prone areas.”

In a major book, Breaking Rules, the research team showed how certain environments trigger crime, the central importance of personal morality and self-control in “crime-averse” youngsters, and how a third of teens never even consider breaking the law while just 16% commit more than 60% of all adolescent crime.

The researchers are currently finishing off their next book, which will take the study findings up to the present day. “We still have a huge retention rate of 91% for our cohort, many of whom are now back in Peterborough after university and some are now becoming parents themselves,” says senior PADS+ researcher Dr Kyle Treiber. “This data has the potential to reach far beyond criminological contexts. There’s so much information on everything from education and lifestyle to social mobility,” she says.

For Wikström, Peterborough is an ideal city to research the role of people and environment in crime causation. “It’s a diverse place of manageable size, with neighbourhoods at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. Itʼs big enough but not too big, so we could cover the whole urban area – and the surrounding Fenland means people tend to live their lives within the city.”

He suggests that the research, now being replicated (and its findings supported) in countries from Sweden to China, could prove useful for city planners in the eastern region, as well as police and social services. “Peterborough is an expanding city, and our data could help developers understand what creates crime-prone people and criminogenic situations.”

Cops and 'hot spots'

Like all cities, Peterborough has its hot spots: streets or intersections where there is a concentration of theft, violence and criminal damage. These are the areas that some of Wikström’s young people know all too well – and policing them is a challenge for a force that works with tightening budgets. To find the most effective ways of reducing crime in neighbourhoods across Peterborough, University criminologists partnered with Cambridgeshire Constabulary to conduct major experimental trials of police deployment.

By randomly allocating 21 extra minutes of daily foot patrol by Police Community Support Officers to some of the cities hottest hot spots, researchers showed an average drop in reported crime of 39%. They worked out that every £10 spent on patrols would ultimately save £56 in prison costs.

“In working with us to conduct experiments, Cambridgeshire Constabulary has set the standard for cost-effectiveness in policing,” says Professor Lawrence Sherman, Director of the Jerry Lee Centre for Experimental Criminology. “The results from Peterborough provide an important benchmark for evaluating police time – challenging those who would rather see patrols in safer neighbourhoods or high traffic areas.”

Fen life

Outside Peterborough, those brought up in the fens can feel their opportunities are limited, and rural life presents its own challenges to those working in the justice system.

A new project led by Cambridge criminologist Dr Caroline Lanskey and King’s College London psychologist Dr Joel Harvey is exploring how the unique Fenland environment stretching east from Peterborough contributes to youth offending. “There are pockets of the fens where isolation, poor transport links and often high levels of deprivation feed into the types of crime young people commit,” she says.

Lanskey and Harvey, with the support of PhD student Hannah Marshall, are working to develop an “explanatory framework” for rural rule-breaking. They are currently conducting interviews, as well as analysing risk assessment data for hundreds of young people from across Cambridgeshire.

“The fens can feel defined by distance: geographically, but also socially and culturally,” says Lanskey. “Youth justice workers struggle to gain the trust of secluded communities – and struggle to reach them. It can take a whole day to see two or three people.” The project is aiming to report back findings later this year.

Prison and beyond 

When the decisions young people make end badly, it can result in imprisonment. Life inside can be harsh – many of the region’s prisons have suffered extensive funding cuts, as in the rest of Britain – and, once a sentence is completed, opportunities on the outside can be scant.

For Drs Ruth Armstrong and Amy Ludlow (who, like Lanskey, are in the Centre for Community, Gender and Social Justice), the secure estate holds a vast amount of talent and potential that risks being wasted. Four years ago, they started an initiative called Learning Together: partnering universities with prisons and probation organisations to build “transformative communities”, in which students from both inside and out are taught at the same time by some of the best lecturers in the UK.

The Learning Together team has worked in several prisons in the eastern region, including Peterborough and Warren Hill near the Suffolk coast. It is with Whitemoor, the high security prison that sits just outside the Fenland town of March, that the team has one of their longest-standing partnerships.

“We started courses in Whitemoor three years ago, and the prison has bought into this work in really exciting ways,” says Ludlow. Bespoke courses on everything from philosophy to creative writing have been taught in Whitemoor; in most cases university students were taken into the prison to learn alongside students currently serving sentences.

“When we move ideas from the learning environment into criminal justice, we show people in prison that they are not defined by their offending, but that there are avenues for them to progress,” says Armstrong.

Learning Together has now instigated over 20 university–prison partnerships nationally. “The relationships of trust built with prisons such as Whitemoor have allowed us to create models of working for partnerships across the country. By engaging locally with research, you can end up pushing national agendas.”

Read more about our research linked with the East of England in the University's research magazine; download a pdf; view on Issuu.

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