Early intervention needs to be more than just a catchphrase

By Dr Matthew Callender

Early intervention is the catchphrase on everyone’s lips when it comes to ways of really cutting crime, as well as solving the funding crisis that policing finds itself in.

It’s clear that the costs of not intervening early when young people show signs of problems are considerably greater when elements such as the cost of exclusion from school and family support later down the line are taken into account.

Yet, while many people utter the early intervention buzzwords, few truly understand what those interventions are, and if they’re really working.

At the IPSCJ, we’re currently working on two innovative interventions with young people who are at risk of being excluded from school. While both of these are police-led, one involves officers leading on the delivery of the intervention, while the other involves officers in a supporting role to a lead professional from an outside organisation.

The Institute have completed pre- and post-intervention measures, and we’ve now moved on to tracking long term outcomes – involving elements such as collecting police intelligence on whether or not these young people have been involved in gangs or anti-social behaviour and if there’s been a social impact through the work the police have put in place.

We’re also reviewing the existing evidence around early interventions that have been carried out – and whether they have been successful with regards to reducing future criminality or offending.

This research contributes towards trying to answer a key question facing society: how do we truly intervene in the lives of young people who engage in problematic and anti-social behaviours for the positive? The feedback provided on Internal Exclusion Units is very mixed, and each school appears to be tackling these issues differently with a combination of internal and external specialist providers. This means that the landscape of early intervention is confusing and inconsistent.

From being in the field and witnessing early intervention in practice, attempts to intervene in young people’s lives are complicated by the changing notions of childhood and adolescence. Comparing the young people I engaged with over a decade ago when exploring a youth-centred interpretation of anti-social behaviour and the young people I work with today; young people seem to be a lot younger when they get involved in criminality and their anti-social identities are more established.

This makes the task of intervening more difficult and costly at a time when services are stretched and investment into schools is in decline. However, this is a challenge that cannot be ignored and there is moral obligation to act. The links between young people who engage in anti-social behaviour and later adult persistent and prolific offending are strong. So, should we intervene now while we can or wait until problematic behaviour becomes crime?

Intervening is not straightforward – which is exactly why it’s important for us to research this area to understand what the options are. But while everyone talks about early intervention strategically, the actual ‘doing’ of intervention is a different story. More investment is needed on that front, in order to make sure early intervention not simply a catchphrase.