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Youth violent crime fears may be unfounded

Has violent crime among youths really been on the rise?

(RDB)

Police statistics and a public perception of rocketing youth violence have been questioned by a Zurich report showing a stable offence rate in the past eight years.

Youth crime, particularly among foreign immigrants, featured heavily in the run-up to this year's parliamentary elections, while revelations of rapes carried out in schools have shocked the country.

Police figures show a doubling of reported violent youth crimes in the past eight years, but the Zurich University study suggests the real rate of increase is just 14 per cent.

Researchers believe the police figures are inflated by more people coming forward than before.

"The increase in police reports is driven by an increased propensity to report, encouraged by parents," criminologist and report co-author Manuel Eisner told swissinfo. "Police are also more likely to make an official record than they were ten years ago."

This is particularly true for assaults where police received a 156 per cent increase in reported attacks with weapons this year, compared with a negligible rise in such complaints in the university study.

The survey of over 2,500 schoolchildren surveyed between 1999 and 2007 still shows the worrying statistic that one in four of the 14 and 15-year-olds was a victim of violent crime in the past two and a half years.

School rape outcry

But the number of self-confessed offenders and victims was down slightly, despite a rise in incidents. This is explained by a small number of youths perpetrating offences repeatedly against the same victim, explains Eisner.

"We are seeing a sub-culture of violence among small groups and an increase in the number of incidents against individuals," he told swissinfo. "We have not yet done a profile of these groups to determine whether there is a connection with lifestyle, race or their neighbourhood."

Many Swiss are convinced that the worst offenders are foreign immigrants who bring anti-social behaviour with them from their countries of origin. The university study shows 22 per cent of foreign youths confessed to crime - a rising number - compared with a slight fall of Swiss (12 per cent) putting their hands up.

Several sexual attacks in schools hit the headlines this year, including a gang rape in the Seebach district of Zurich. There was an outcry earlier this month when only two of the 13 implicated were charged and allegations of separate sexual abuses emerged from the school.

Computers replace alcohol

But these incidents may be isolated according to the report, which shows the number of sexual crimes falling overall. However, more incidents are taking place at schools while the average age of those involved is falling.

The study points the finger at a lack of conflict resolution skills and changing social habits for the rise in youth crime. Youngsters appear to be consuming fewer drugs and less alcohol, spending less time with their parents and forsaking the outdoors for a life in front of their computers.

"Parents also need to be educated about controlling their children's free time," said Eisner. "They have more uncontrolled access to the media where they may be exposed to pornography."

swissinfo, Matthew Allen in Zurich

Key facts

Official figures from the Federal Statistics Office showed a slight drop in youth crime in 2006 (14,045 convictions) compared with 2005 (14,106).
This is broken down to 79.5% males and 20.5% females.
The percentage of convicted Swiss youths was up to 64.1% compared with 62.7% in 2005.
In canton Zurich, the number of convictions fell for the first time in five years, dropping to 2,870 (2,936 in 2005).

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In brief

The Zurich University study surveyed 2,693 youths aged 14-15 in the canton in 1999 and compared the results with 2,553 youngsters in 2007.

Each youth filled in a survey anonymously to report the types of crimes they perpetrated or had committed against them, along with details of their social habits.

The results were compared with official police statistics on reported violent youth crime.

Similar studies in Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden came to the same conclusions – that police statistics are inflated by a growing tendency to report crimes to the authorities compared with a few years ago.

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