The 16-year-olds who have committed 86 crimes each

A ground-breaking British study finds that 4 per cent are responsible for nearly half of youth crime. The research could have profound implications for police and policy-makers

A tiny, hard core of amoral teenagers is responsible for the majority of juvenile crimes, according to a ground-breaking study from the University of Cambridge.

A delinquent minority will commit an average of 86 crimes each by the age of 16, with less than 4 per cent responsible for nearly half of all youth crime. A lack of a sense of morality – rather than the opportunity to commit crime or social background – was found to be the most important factor in teenagers breaking the law. The 16 per cent who admitted having the weakest moral sense and self-control were responsible for 60 per cent of all the recorded crimes.

Cambridge researchers studied 700 teenagers over five years in Peterborough, chosen as a bellwether location for its average size, crime level and social make-up. From the age of 12 to 16 youngsters were asked about their attitudes to lawlessness and asked what criminal things they had done. Their answers were cross-checked with police records. Crime occurred when teenagers with little sense of right and wrong were in areas where people were unlikely to intervene – primarily city centres or run-down housing estates.

The findings could have profound implications for policing and youth crime policy. Last year the number of under-18s in custody in England and Wales averaged more than 2,000, and youth offending remains a source of political controversy. Nationally, the latest crime figures show that under-17s are responsible for 23 per cent of police recorded crime – more than a million crimes.

The study suggests that most of those crimes will be committed by a tiny minority of young people. A typical example of this lawless group is Nathaniel Moffett, a 16-year-old from Bristol who was jailed for five years last February after committing a string of armed robberies.

In a single court case Moffett admitted five robberies, three attempted robberies and three charges of possessing a bladed article. He led an older accomplice in a series of attacks on women and children last year, including threatening a 14-year-old with a rusty blade to get his mobile phone and 21p in change.

He was caught after punching a pregnant woman in the stomach to steal her wallet while her five-year-old daughter looked on. He wrote on his Facebook page: "I'm nothing but a bully that can't hit a man cus I no I will get banged [beaten] so I have to hit girls."

The research also offers some insights into last year's riots, notably on the question why some young people went on a lawless rampage while others did not. Teenagers who avoided crime did so not because they feared the consequences or lacked the chance, but because they saw it as wrong. The research, which is the most comprehensive study of youth crime and its causes conducted in Europe, found that a third of teenagers did nothing wrong at all over five years.

Professor Per-Olof Wikstrom, who led the Cambridge study, said: "Many young people are 'crime averse' and simply don't perceive crime as a possible course of action ... The idea that opportunity makes the thief – that young people will inevitably commit crime in certain environments – runs counter to our findings."

He added that policy-makers should put an emphasis on teaching young people moral boundaries. "We need to focus on developing policies that affect children and young people's moral education and cognitive nurturing – which aids the development of greater self-control."

Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder of Kids Company, cautioned against branding some young people as amoral. She said: "Society is lecturing children and young people about how well behaved they should be but it's not behaving in a way that warrants respect. It's a given that it's a good thing to teach right from wrong, but really where children observe it the most is in experience: it's 'have you looked after me?' and 'do you do what you preach?'"

One 14-year-old boy who attends a Kids Company youth club in London said: "I got caught stealing and was given a second chance. That's when I realised it was wrong. Nobody told me I shouldn't do it and my mum still doesn't know I did it."

Graham Beech, the director of the crime reduction charity Nacro, said: "In my view the key to preventing crime by the small number of young people who are most likely to get entrenched in crime is to get in early, instil positive attitudes and teach them how to solve their everyday problems in a better way."

But academics around the world have heralded the study as a breakthrough in understanding why teenagers break the law. Professor Michael Gottfredson at the University of California described it as "among the most significant works in criminology in decades", while Professor Robert Sampson at Harvard University said the research was a "breakthrough that deserves a wide readership".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
SPONSORED FEATURES
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future
Berlusconi's world of sleaze: The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM

Berlusconi's world of sleaze

The astonishing lifestyle once enjoyed by Italy's former PM
Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

Disney plans galactic domination with endless Star Wars spin-offs

Films and theme parks are just the beginning. Disney believes its control of the now decades-old franchise can bring in merchandise and marketing millions for years to come
Could the golden age of the gaming arcade ever be revived in the era of the Xbox?

Could gaming arcades be revived?

The days when coin-ops were the only way to play the latest video games are gone. But a small band of enthusiasts are keeping the button-pushing dream alive
Edinburgh Fringe 2015: The 'tampon tax' has inspired a new wave of female comedians to reclaim period jokes

Heard the one about menstruation?

Yes, if you have been at the Fringe, where period pieces are taking centre stage