Deborah Orr: When criminality is a lifestyle choice

Well-adjusted schoolchildren are petrified of being seen as ambitious or clever, because it's not cool
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The Independent Online

The mother of Tom ap Rhys Price, the 31-year-old London lawyer stabbed to death for a mobile phone and a pre-pay transport pass, is clearly a woman of some character. Speaking of Delano Brown and Donnel Carty, the two young men who have been convicted of her son's murder, she said: "These children are not intrinsically evil. If they had been educated properly, given the right moral training, they would not have done this. I feel very sorry for them."

It's not just talk either. Mr and Mrs ap Rhys Price have also launched a memorial fund that aims to raise £1m and give inner-city children like Carty and Brown the opportunities that might keep them away from a life of crime. They've already raised £700,000. No doubt a lot of people will think them absolute fools for their compassion, none more, most probably, than the very sort of people that the fund seeks to help most urgently. The latter view is certainly backed up in perusal of the creative effort 19-year-old Carty came up with when he was placed on a government-funded course for the unemployed. In a rap song surely calculated to defy those trying to work with him, he declared: "I draw for a shank, your boys will get poked... Come round here, you'll get bored, that don't work out, draw your sword. We don't pet to do murders." (That's "bored" as in "stabbed", by the way, not bored as in unable to get into any of the books you've brought on holiday; "don't pet", as in "aren't afraid" rather than tend to follow rigorously the instructions displayed at the side of the swimming pool; and "shank" as in "knife", as any fool with children at state school in London these days knows.)

It's true that Carty has had an unpromising upbringing. His father left when he was a toddler, his mother was unable to cope, and these are tough rejections for a child to bear. He failed at school, he fell in with gangs, and his distant mother never ever seems to have woken up to what was going on. "It's just a shame Rhys died," she is quoted as saying, though not for the obvious reason. Instead it's because "Dead men tell no tales. But I believe my boy when he tells me he didn't do it." Robberies she accepts he has been involved in, although she points out that "that's what kids are doing these days, and what can you do about it?"

What can you do? One thing is to start accepting that the problem of violent criminality among young people is more culturally embedded than toxic upbringings can account for alone. Yes, it is important to understand the havoc that unstable upbringings create, and important too to appreciate the wider social context in which they are forged. But it is also crucial to grasp that the impact of such childhoods is extremely far-reaching, and that the disengagement that their unfortunate sufferers embrace is often seen by more fortunate peers as seductive.

Carty's accomplice, Delano Brown, did have a few more choices in his life than his more dominant friend, having passed five GCSEs and gone on to study sports science at a further education college. He was a good footballer, coached children in the game and worked part time in a sports centre. Instead of enjoying his talents and his future, he allied himself with Carty. Why?

For the simple and unedifying reason that violent and petty criminality is now seen among many young people not as a ghastly pit that the most deprived fall into, but as a thrilling and fashionable lifestyle choice. Brown, it is safe to assume, was drawn to what he saw as the romance, freedom and adventure of Carty's nihilistic existence. It is safe to assume this, because the tendency is so clearly obvious for all to see.

Even young people whose home experience is far away from the depths that these two teenagers sunk to are affected by the trend. Perfectly well-adjusted schoolchildren are petrified of being seen as clever or engaged or ambitious, because it's just not cool to be that way. The Cartys of this world are dangerous not just because they are damaged, but also because they are hugely influential cultural figures.

Parents, desperate to shield their children from such influences, by keeping them indoors or sending them miles away to a school where they are less likely to come under the thrall of such a powerfully negative street culture, have known the perils for years. They are not just afraid of their own children being injured by these rat-kings of social exclusion. They're also afraid of them being corrupted by them.

At last a survey by Professor Trevor Bennett, director of the University of Glamorgan's Centre for Criminology, and Dr Fiona Brookman, offers an academic acknowledgement of the link. "The decision to commit street robbery can be explained in part by particular characteristics of the street culture," says Professor Bennett. "This finding is important, because British research has tended to explain robbery in terms of rational choice and to focus instead on the role of cost-reward calculations. Our research suggests that any explanation must primarily take into account cultural factors associated with life on the street."

In interviews with 120 offenders serving sentences for violent offences in prisons and young offenders institutions in England and Wales, it was found that many committed their crimes simply because they enjoyed them. "It weren't even for money. I had money. It was more like the buzz you get from doing things," one robber said. "I was more addicted to robbing than I was to drugs. Just get a funny feeling when I go out robbing."

In other words, violent crime - which is the only sort of crime apart from driving offences that is consistently increasing - is viewed as a form of hedonistic behaviour, with the emphasis entirely focused on the perceived benefits for the perpetrator, and the pain caused to the victim entirely absent from the equation.

Those who take part in such activities revel in the supreme self-centred lack of empathy that their fights over "respect", attacks over the smallest admonishment, and muggings over the slimmest pickings, represent. The further worry is that even when their actions are viewed as repulsive, young people often see them as powerful too. Crossing the line of social acceptability so completely is grudgingly admired as being a liberating strength rather than despised as a life-diminishing weakness.

Educated properly, and given the right moral training, young men and women - 31 of the survey's interviewees were females - may well refrain from embracing such monstrous solipsism. But that doesn't explain why it continues to underpin and distort the wider outlook of other children sucked into the fantasy of street culture, who will ruefully look back one day and see that they should have known better. Mostly, they'll have been smoking dope or skipping classes instead of doing their schoolwork. But at the centre of this destructive ethos is some very dark behaviour.