They may be reaching in the right direction: there is evidence of links between family and crime. But ministers seem not to see what is staring them in the face.
Crime is, overwhelmingly, a male occupation. Men account for eight out of every ten people cautioned by police and nearly nine out of every ten found guilty of indictable offences. Men are responsible for 81 per cent of convicted cases of theft and handling stolen goods, 92 per cent of violence against the person and 97 per cent of burglary.
Why do they do it? Why don't the women? Most research in this area has been strangely uncurious about the links between men and crime. Many people have taken it for granted. Albert Cohen, the criminologist, in a study published in 1955, observed that 'the delinquent subculture' was created largely by young men who had problems adjusting to the male role. Men and women, he said, had different problems and preoccupations because they were judged by themselves and others according to different standards. But he did not go further than that.
Since then, a host of (mainly male) criminologists have argued over the causes of crime. Should we blame it all on 'bad apples'? Or moral degeneracy? Or cultural alienation? Or poverty? Or dysfunctional families? Several weighty surveys, undertaken at considerable cost in Britain and the United States, have been analysed and re-analysed in search of an answer. Yet none has paused to question traditional assumptions about masculine identity or male roles.
Some have observed differences between male and female behaviour, but have not troubled to investigate them. Others have reported their findings about 'youths' without specifying whether they were male or female. Most have investigated the parenting practices of women, but not of men; they have been interested in fathers only as breadwinners or as bearers of a criminal record. In short, these studies have conformed to the well-worn academic practice of treating the male as the real human being whose maleness does not require investigation. The female, by contrast, is treated as an aberrant sub-species and worthy of passing curiosity.
Feminists first drew attention to women as victims of male violence and to patterns of female deviance - both neglected areas. They argued that relations between men and women, and the way in which masculine and feminine identities developed, were vital to an understanding of deviant and criminal behaviour. But it took some time before their insights made a wider impact on the study of crime and family.
There is now a small but growing interest in studying precisely what masculinity means and how men learn to be masculine. With it comes a new, critical interest in the role of fathers in families, the experience of boys growing up to be men and the reasons why men, rather than women, get into trouble with the law.
In September, more than 150 people took part in a conference on masculinity and crime at Brunel University, the first of its kind in Britain. This was not a convention of feminists out to blame men. It was a group of academics, probation officers and community workers, with a handful representing the police and prison service, who shared a sense that here was a rich source of intelligence on the nature and causes of crime.
They note that the old routes by which boys learnt to be men have been severed and new trails have yet to be blazed. Not only are more women going out to work, but eight out of ten jobs created between now and the turn of the century are expected to be 'women's jobs'. Roles and expectations of daughters, wives and mothers have changed profoundly. So have the prospects for sons, husbands and fathers. But while women have added the role of wage-earner to their traditional one of homemaker and carer, men have simply lost their breadwinning role. Young men grow up fearing there will be no jobs for them, and lacking (in Albert Cohen's words) the means of 'realising their aspirations' to become men.
In communities where there are no jobs for men or women, the girls still have their rites of passage: they can claim adult status by becoming mothers. This may well be undesirable because poorly educated teenagers, themselves trapped in dependency, are not best placed to give their children a start in life. But these young mothers have to grow up fast - in a way they would not if they spent their time stealing cars and videos or selling drugs. Most make a good job of parenting, considering the odds stacked against them - odds which the Government seems determined to lengthen. When such girls fail to marry the fathers of their children, they are not being feckless, but making a realistic assessment of the available options. The boys who get them pregnant appear to have little else to offer.
So the young men are left adrift. Often they hang out in groups, where they can gain some security from being with their peers. To prove themselves as 'real' men, they resort to the traditional masculine virtues. They try to be tough, brave and strong, they try not to show their feelings or to form strong personal attachments. They can demonstrate their potency by siring children and 'earning' by foul means or fair. Many will regard their unemployed fathers (if they see them at all) as impotent failures. Not a few will observe their fathers using violence to defend their fragile authority at home. Where can they look for alternative role models? There seems to be nothing between the 'hard man' and the 'wimp', where they might forge a new identity.
It is the unequal struggle to be masculine in modern times that gets so many boys into trouble. Delinquent and criminal behaviour offers the best opportunity to prove their manhood. Doing time in jail confirms their virility. One in four men is convicted of an offence by the age of 25. And two-thirds of all male offenders are under 30.
This is the missing piece of the jigsaw that might help government ministers understand and tackle the rising crime rate. But they are fixated on single mothers. Michael Howard has rightly declared that absentee fathers are a part of the problem. Yet his response has been to demonise and punish the women who bear and raise their children - and to build more institutions in which young male offenders can learn to be more macho than ever.
Government policy only makes worse a destructive cycle in which boys become the main perpetrators and the main victims. Boys between 11 and 15 are twice as likely as girls to fall prey to violence. Far less consideration is given to men who are victims of crime than to women. Men are supposed to be tougher and cope more easily with the experience. There is some evidence that males are more likely to be picked up by police than females behaving in the same way. Girls are much more likely than boys to be cautioned rather than charged. Ostensibly, girls and women are locked up for their own protection, while boys and men are locked up to protect society from them. Jewelle Gibbs, professor of social welfare at Berkeley, California, who has studied young black men in America, observes that they 'have been the primary victims of mob violence, police brutality, legal executions, and ghetto homicide'.
Young men stop getting into trouble with the law when they 'settle down'. Getting a job and enjoying a successful marriage make them less likely to offend. Right-wing American analysts such as Charles Murray have argued that young men are essentially barbarians who are best civilised by the responsibility of providing for a wife and family. But how can women be persuaded to play ball? If breadwinning is all that can save men from perdition, they will have to be given priority in the job market. Women will have to go home and abandon their claims to financial independence.
As Ulrich Beck points out in his book Risk Society, modernisation 'is not a carriage one can step out of at the next corner if one does not like it'. To turn the clock back, women would have to be displaced not just from the labour market, but from education as well. Wage rates for women would have to be cut to render them incapable of supporting themselves or their children. Equality laws would have to be repealed.
'It would have to be checked,' writes Beck, 'whether the evil did not begin with universal suffrage; mobility, the market, new media and information technologies would have to be limited or forbidden.' Impossibly, the great cultural and economic changes which have gathered momentum through the 20th century would have to be swung into reverse.
The point is not that we just give up and leave things as they are, but that successful policies must cut with the grain of change. Women who become single parents may be making the best of a bad job, but few would deny that children are better off in two-parent families as long as these provide a happy, secure and stable environment. Soaring divorce rates are a sign that traditional family arrangements are failing.
Michael Howard would be well advised to look for ways of helping parents, particularly men, adjust to change. He and his colleagues might consider how public policies can assist the quest for new masculine identities. Through education, benefit and employment policies, they could encourage men as well as women to be caring and attentive parents. It would take some of the strain off modern marriage, give men new ways of 'proving themselves' and make life a bit easier for women. More important, it could give children a better start in life - and boys a better chance of growing up without a criminal record.
The author is Hamlyn Fellow in Social Policy at the Institute for Public Policy Research. A conference on Families, Children and Crime, sponsored by the Institute and the 'Independent on Sunday', will be held in London this week.
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