Government anti-crime websites do not pay.
‘Can a wicked website stop youth crime?’, runs the headline on BBC News (1).
I very much doubt it. It’s just a guess, but isn’t it unlikely that a young, criminally minded person heading out to nick a car or mug someone, would first log on to a website to try to put themselves off?
The £1.1million UK government website ‘Rizer’ is an attempt to guide young offenders ‘out of the cycle of crime’, and to deter wannabe criminals from entering it (2). The system is failing if a website is necessary to help those already in trouble with the law. You would hope that human faces on youth offenders panels, youth offending teams, and parole officers and social workers would already be trying to do this.
The bog-standard HTML version of the website doesn’t boast much. Long lists – of the official names of crimes, punishments, court procedures, and their definitions – seem to tell you the sorts of things you don’t really want to know. Is it really of much use to a teenager to know that ‘making off without payment’ is the police term for leaving without paying your bill, or that ‘allowing to be carried’ is the term for being a passenger in a stolen car or motorbike?
After all, if you are charged with ‘overloading’, and don’t know it means that you have too many people in you car, you should have it explained to you – and not have to rely on definitions memorised in case of arrest from a website.
The Flash version of Rizer is more interesting in comparison – hip-hop beats (because apparently, it’s mainly teens who listen to hip-hop who commit crime) and Flash graphics ensure that it takes an age to look at, if you are at the mercy of a regular-speed modem. Which begs the question – how many burglarising teens are going to have a top-of-the-range computer, super-fast modem and Macromedia Flash running anyway? (Unless they’ve stolen the equipment?)
On the website, you have the chance to follow the stories of four crime-committing youngsters and discover the consequences of their actions, aided by handy explanations of the areas of the criminal justice system they encounter. ‘Mitchell’ nicks cars and is arrested, while ‘Jodie’ has a boyfriend who is into drugs. It’s all, apparently ‘the hardcore stuff you need to know’. Even more than that, the website sells itself as ‘what you need to know about crime, the law and you. It’s designed by young people like you, so you know it’s real, you get what you need, when you want it, and it’s nobody else’s business’.
It all sounds very funky, but possibly the last thing a young offender who has just been electronically tagged needs is a cartoon-esque website that they are supposed to read. The fancy graphics are nice enough if you are into comics, but the information they house is less impressive.
Advice starts with the basic: ‘Vandalising railway property is a very serious crime. It covers a range of things – from throwing stones at trains, to putting objects on the rails or tampering with points and signals. These sorts of thing can get you into a lot of trouble with the law, because you are putting people’s lives at risk by doing them.’
It moves on to the ridiculously complicated: ‘It is a crime at any age to have an airgun in a public place without a good reason. The only reason a court will accept is if you are going to or from a place where you have a right to use the gun. This doesn’t apply if you are under 14. There is no excuse for someone under 14 having an airgun in public. Between 14 and 17 it is allowed – though only for air rifles, not for pistols. But if the air rifle is loaded or not in a properly fastened gun cover you will still be in trouble. It is a crime at any age to fire an airgun within 50 feet of a road or a footpath – even if you are on private property.’
And it ends with the downright ridiculous: ‘It is a crime to grow cannabis plants from seed. It’s no excuse to say, “I didn’t realise it was cannabis”. The court is very unlikely to believe you. Anyone can tell the difference between a cannabis plant and a geranium.’
And anyone knows it is naughty to grow such non-geraniums. Tell people something useful.
Yes, it is no bad thing for young people to have access to information about their rights, and what can happen if they are arrested. But let’s not pretend that Rizer is anything more than a vicar at a disco, the government in Ali G clothes asking young people to ‘please do not commit these crimes’ – which can do little to change the situation of those committing or affected by crime.
(1) Can a wicked website stop youth crime?, BBC News, 13 May 2003
(2) See the Rizer website
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