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Psychologist plays down rising youth crime

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Official figures issued this week showed a rise in juvenile crime in Switzerland between 1999 and 2003, including a 40 per cent increase in violent crime.

But in an interview with swissinfo, youth psychologist Allan Guggenbühl says the rise in convictions does not necessarily mean that society has become more violent.

Guggenbühl believes the increase partly reflects changing attitudes towards violence, saying society is quick to react to any form of aggression.

He claims the young lawbreakers he deals with are not the “monsters” people sometimes believe them to be.

Guggenbühl, who runs a conflict management institute, says young people are often unsure of their place in society and the rules governing it.

On Monday the Federal Statistics Office released figures showing that there were 13,500 juvenile convictions last year, 1,200 more than in 1999.

The vast majority of these convictions – 80 per cent – were related to theft or drug consumption. A further 13 per cent were linked to violent crime, up three per cent on the 1999 level.

The number of youths convicted of violent crime rose from 1,237 to 1,729 over the five-year period.

swissinfo: How would you explain this 40 per cent increase in violent crime among juveniles?

Allan Guggenbühl: One explanation is that there are groups of adolescents who define themselves through violence, and who try to conquer the public area through violence and aggression. That’s a very problematic group, and there we can see a certain increase.

But there’s a second reason and that is that we become more sensitive to the issue of violence and aggression among adolescents the older we get, and our society is dominated by older people and by the values of older people.

We have to realise that young people – and young men especially between the ages of 18 and 27 – have always been aggressive or have a lot of energy to get rid of. The question is: how does society deal with it?

swissinfo: How, in your view, does society deal with it?

A.G.: Our society tends to pathologise it. It tends to give very little room for this kind of aggression and this means that when there’s an outburst of aggression we immediately think this is something very serious which needs to be reported.

If you look back historically, and at the different areas of Switzerland, you see that the figures go up and down continually. It’s the perception that’s very important.

swissinfo: Have you yourself noticed a shift in young peoples’ attitudes or behaviour over this five-year period?

A.G.: A lot of institutions or schools come to me and say they don’t know how to deal with these young adolescents, who are very aggressive and violent. When I work with them in groups, or within the school, what I’ve found again and again is that these are mostly adolescents who are trying to find an orientation, a sense in their life, a goal. And one is able to work with them – they are not monsters.

swissinfo: You talked about the ageing population. Do young people perhaps feel marginalised in society?

A.G.: The problem is our society is divided into different areas and young people want to know whose territory they are in and what codes are in force there.

What is lacking is grown-ups who tell them what codes apply in the outside world and what reaction they might get if they don’t respect them. So they are left in a void.

We tend to say [of problem cases] that they are violent or have become problematic and transfer them to some professional. We forget that what they are actually seeking is a direct confrontation with grown-up people who are ready to introduce them into society.

swissinfo: So, is there hope that many of these young people will stop resorting to violence?

A.G.: It all depends on what we do, if we have the resources to take care of these young people, and if we’re ready to devote time and energy to them.

swissinfo: The punishment meted out for violent crimes tends not to be prison, but community service. What do you think of that?

A.G.: I think this is an excellent way, and something specific to our country. If you look at California in the United States, they have zero tolerance. We have a tradition of trying to get [young criminals] back into the community and these programmes are often very good.

swissinfo-interview: Morven McLean

In 2003, 13,500 juveniles were convicted of crimes, 1,200 more than in 1999.
Theft accounted for 44% of convictions; illicit drug use for 36%, violent crime for 13%, and other crimes for 7%.
In 1999 violent crime accounted for 10% of all convictions.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR