Article: Crime, marginalised young people and neoliberalism

Author: Shannon Hughes Spence | Tags: , , , , ,

In this article, Shannon Hughes Spence examines the tumultuous relationship between marginalised young people and the national police service, An Garda Síochána, in Ireland. She explores how street culture and police culture share some cultural norms, such as those informed by masculinity and a sense of solidarity, and yet face a clash of class-based values. Hughes Spence argues that the responses to youth crime largely neglect issues of structural inequality and its symptoms, such as poverty and disadvantage, that impact on the lives of marginalised young people.


The central objective of this article is to examine the Irish context in regards to how legal structures are dominated by conservative ideologies that influence society’s understanding of crime, and the impact this has on the relationship between the national police service in Ireland, An Garda Síochána, and marginalised young people. Furthermore, this article explores the effect of neoliberalism on police reform and the consequences of this framework on the lives of marginalised young people who come into conflict with the law, ultimately highlighting how crime discourse that is dominated by conservative ideologies fails to consider crime as a symptom of poverty, disadvantage and marginalisation caused by structural inequalities.

Crime as a class-cultural issue, the police and marginalised young people

Crime has been defined as deviant behaviours that threaten the safety and social cohesion of society (Ilan, 2007). Although there is little disagreement on the condemnation of malicious acts such as homicide, the context in which it occurs has often been subjected to debate in regards to crime as a class-cultural phenomenon (Schwendinger and Schwendinger, 1977: 8). This can be seen through the discourse surrounding the honouring and support of soldiers at war in foreign lands, compared to the vilification of gang members in urban areas. Behaviour that is perceived as acceptable is disseminated throughout society by reinforcing a set of shared norms and values (Ilan, 2007: 6). Schwendinger and Schwendinger (1977: 8) argued that legal definitions of crime are often instruments of ideology that aid in the development of discourses that strengthen class domination.

According to Ilan (2007), crime and social class are closely intertwined. Furthermore, Ilan (2007: 6) highlights that despite laws reflecting the value system of the dominant class, all members of society are subject to universal laws that must be obeyed. Initially, subjecting all citizens to the same legalities presents no obvious issues. However, when factors such as socio-economic status, disadvantage and marginalisation are considered alongside prosecution and prison statistics that highlight inmates are twenty-five times more likely to come from deprived communities (Walsh, 2014), it is paramount to critically analyse the criminal justice system and the value system it currently operates from.

Kelling and Wilson’s broken window theory (1982) suggests that people are more inclined to commit crime in areas with visible signs of anti-social behaviour and that as civil disorder increases further, more serious crimes also emerge. The opposite is also true. Individuals are less likely to commit crimes in areas that are well maintained. It can therefore be suggested that Kelling and Wilson (1982) support the notion that an individual who commits a crime does so through rational choice and the exercising of free will. The offender, therefore, is a rational being who has freely chosen to commit a crime against society. As a result, the offender must also be capable of responding to crime prevention initiatives and control strategies. Kelling and Wilson’s framework (1982) as well as Murray’s ‘underclass’ thesis (1990) (albeit Murray claims individuals who commit crime do so on impulse rather than rational choice) are part of right-wing neo-conservative perspectives, or a right realist perspective, that has been criticized for its inconsistency and ideologically based, rather than evidence-based, viewpoint (Ugwudike 2015: 116).

Left realist critics of the right realist perspective of crime have highlighted several issues. One particular issue is the tendency to overlook the significant impact that poverty and disadvantage can have in the causation of crime. Left realists have indicated that the causation of crime can be attributed to structural inequalities such as social class and gender (Ugwudike, 2015: 124). Thus, when social exclusion and marginalisation are prominent in a community, crime levels may be higher as a result of structural inequalities, rather than a lack of work ethic as suggested by Murray (1990). Both Murray (1990) and Kelling and Wilson’s (1982) theories do not hold much empirical evidence. However, there are copious reports and ethnographic studies on the experience of marginalised groups who have committed crime; in an Irish context, most notably by Ilan (2007, 2018).

Due to the relationship between citizens, security, the state and policing, the police have the ability to reinforce, affirm or undermine the cultural characteristics of particular political communities (Loader and Walker, 2001). Thus, the institution of policing mirrors the values of the state, reinforcing discourses surrounding power and morality (Lawther, 2010: 457). The Irish Penal Reform Trust have highlighted that ‘there are a number of specific ways in which the criminal law is unduly focused on marginalised groups’ (2012: 9). Evidence of ‘over-policing’ and ‘under-protection’ in disadvantaged areas is prevalent in Irish society (Mulcahy and O’Mahony, 2005: 2). The first port of call marginalised young people have with the criminal justice system and the law is through An Garda Síochána. Therefore, relationship between the two groups, An Garda Síochána and marginalised young people, can often be tumultuous in nature.

Thus, the neo-conservative ideals that have dominated the discourse surrounding crime and the individuals who commit crime has led to the overlooking of structural inequalities in the causation of crime. As members of the institution of policing, An Garda Síochána internalise and reinforce the dominant discourse surrounding morality and crime that has been presented by the dominant class onto marginalised groups, such as young people from disadvantaged areas. This polarising value system and lack of common understanding has created significant tension between the two groups.

An Garda Síochána and the ‘respectable’ members of society

Loftus (2010) has explored attitudes and views held by police officers and the influence of cultures and discourses of policing on day-to-day police work. Police officers view their primary role as crime-fighters. Due to the gender ratio in the police (Chan, 2004), the underlying masculinity that permeates the field celebrates violence by glorifying conflict and danger. Furthermore, the occupational culture of the police is enshrined with cynicism, mistrust of civilians, solidarity with fellow police officers and possession of conservative political ideologies and morality (Loftus, 2010: 1). In an Irish context, although many of the fundamentals of occupational police culture prevail, there appears to be a degree of differences between An Garda Síochána compared with the police in the United States or the United Kingdom. As emphasized by Charman and Corcoran (2015), An Garda Síochána differ from their international counterparts by more fully embracing the idea of community policing. Despite this topical difference, similarities remain between An Garda Síochána and police forces within the UK and US, particularly among the rank-and-file officers. Most notably, the ‘us versus them’ attitude.

According to Ilan (2018: 685), the ‘us versus them’ approach developed as a safeguarding mechanism for the police to distinguish themselves from the potential danger they face. This has been further implemented by the police to serve the members of the public that they identify with through a shared idea of morality, the respectable members of society. The question is therefore raised, against who are the police protecting the respectable members of society from? The answer lies within the lowest tier of the social strata among people who allegedly possess polarising morals from the ‘respectable’ civilians, with values born from intense disadvantage and exclusion (Ilan, 2007: ii). The ‘rough’ members of society usually consist of marginalised working-class young people. Rank-and-file police officers therefore primarily focus their efforts on defending the hard working, respectable citizens from the ‘rough’ urban poor who are often viewed as a threat (Ilan, 2018: 685).

The ‘rough’ members of society

Under Ireland’s national policy framework for children and young people, Better Outcomes Brighter Futures 2014-2020, a young person is defined as ‘any person between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four years of age’ (whereas a child is defined as any person under the age of eighteen) (Department of Children and Youth Affairs, 2014: 16). Ethnographic studies of young people in Ireland who experience marginalisation, disadvantage and inequality have been conducted to offer insights into their lives (Ilan, 2007, 2015; Yates, 2006). These studies highlight the issue of drug misuse among marginalised young people, underage alcohol consumption, petty crimes and joyriding. However, more crucially, they offer rare appreciation for the environmental circumstances surrounding the young people (Ilan, 2007). Not only does it depict instances of young people engaging in typical anti-social behaviour, it offers explanations as to why. Highlighting the difficulties many marginalised young people face when it comes to building trusting relationships with adults, a lack of opportunities coupled with low educational attainment, and coming from a background where the habitus is to either enter the labour force after the junior certificate or receive social welfare benefits, such studies consider the economic consequences of an increasingly globalised society and the effects this may have on young people as they struggle to survive ‘in absolute poverty’ (Ilan, 2007: i).

As socio-economically disadvantaged young people try to survive in an increasingly neoliberal society which promotes middle class values, it is therefore almost predictable that there is a strong positive relationship between crime and poverty (Bowden, 2006). As Bacik et al (1997) underscored over twenty years ago, young males residing in economically disadvantaged areas were more likely to appear before the District Court. More recently, Walsh (2014) found that prison inmates are twenty-five times more likely than the general population to come from deprived communities. Although this may be attributed to people from disadvantaged areas as being more likely to engage in property crime, which attracts a greater proportion of custodial sentences, it is also worth questioning this correlation further. As Bacik et al (1997: 6) highlighted, this may be due to the judges who impose the sentencing being biased, as they predominantly come from more affluent backgrounds. This is not dissimilar to Bourdieu’s claim that middle-class teachers favour students who display middle-class habitus and cultural capital, due to the teacher’s interest in reproducing ‘self-perpetuation and self-protection’ (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1990: 149). Much like teachers, judges and police have an interest in adhering to a discourse that maintains the dominant ideology as it favours and reaffirms their position in society. It may therefore be argued that much like teachers and the police, the judges who impose custodial sentences on those from deprived areas at a higher rate than those from affluent areas, are reinforcing state power and the conservative discourse that dominates the criminal justice system.  Thus, as An Garda Síochána reinforce the dominant ideology that vilifies marginalised young people, a relationship filled with tension and hostility has emerged between the two groups. 

Interactions between An Garda Síochána and marginalised young people

The tumultuous relationship between An Garda Síochána and young people from disadvantaged urban areas has been well documented in the previously mentioned ethnographic study conducted by Ilan (2018). With both groups referring to each other as ‘scumbags’, it is worth considering the stark differences that are perceived between the two groups, as well as their similarities.

In the ‘street culture’ that dictates the norms and values held by many marginalised young people, there are several key characteristics. The accepted norms and behaviours within street culture are defiant towards state authority and sensationalise entrepreneurialism in the illicit economy. The police are viewed by the young people as a force that is not to be cooperated with (Yates, 2006). Although the polarising differences are evident between the morals held by the groups, a myriad of similarities are also present. With the norms of both groups subscribing to traditional representations of masculinity, an emphasis on appearing tough, assertive and strong dominates both police culture and street culture (Ilan, 2015). Rank-and-file police officers maintain a strong sense of solidarity through a ‘blue wall’, committing to protect one another from accusations of wrongdoing (Conway, 2010). Comparably, young people who subscribe to the values of street-culture place a strong emphasis on not ‘grassing’ on one another (Yates, 2006). According to Ilan (2018: 690), with both groups engaging in mundane tasks for the majority of their day, their parallel senses of masculinity and solidarity manifest in confrontational interactions. Ilan (2018: 691) depicts a particularly hostile scenario between An Garda Síochána and marginalised young people. With An Garda Síochána arresting one of the young people over an allegedly stolen moped and questioning the remaining young men, aggravation arises between the two groups. With a Guard physically towering over one young man and speaking over him, another arrest is threatened. Displeased with this threat, the young man becomes highly irritated and attempts to retaliate. However, he is restrained by his brother. The young men shout abuse to the Guards from a distance as they drive off.

When both groups possess such conflicting class-based value systems yet interchangeable cultural norms, it is almost inevitable that a sense of hostility will arise. As shown from ethnographic evidence and positivist research, marginalised young people are more likely to come into conflict with the criminal justice system.

Crime prevention initiatives

However, many young people who commit petty crimes or engage in anti-social behaviour may never appear in front of the District Court or receive a custodial sentence. In recent decades, Ireland has taken a seemingly welfarist-restorative approach to youth justice as opposed to its historically punitive measures such as reformatory schools (Bowden, 2006). The implementation of The Children Act 2001 (Office of the Attorney General, 2001) saw detention or imprisonment as an absolute last resort and instead provided a varied range of non-custodial options for young people who have come into conflict with the law (Geoghegan et al, 2012: 150). The anti-social behaviour conducted by the young people who have come into conflict with the law may lessen through a referral from the Juvenile Liaison Officer to community support facilities and crime prevention initiatives such as Garda Youth Diversion Projects (GYDPs). The GYDPs are administered through the Community Relations Section of An Garda Síochána, who are also responsible for community policing and neighborhood watch (Geoghegan et al, 2012: 165). GYDPs are facilitated by youth work organizations in areas considered to be ‘high crime’, which are predominately working-class areas (Bowden, 2006: 20). GYDPs are centered around the legal definition of youth work as set out in the Youth Work Act 2001, to empower young people by focusing on social education and personal development outside the formal education system through (at least to an extent) voluntary participation. GYDPs offer young people in conflict with the law a safe environment to build trusting relationships with youth workers to develop their skills while being held accountable for their actions. Through the facilitation of drug and alcohol awareness programmes, leisure activities, support and counselling, GYDPs provide ‘at risk’ young people with the opportunity to change their problematic behaviour (Fionda, 2005). However, it is undeniable that GYDPs function as a form of ‘social control’ to divert young people from causing disruption to public order (Geoghegan et al, 2012: 167). Due to the fact young people participate in GYDPs through a referral order, the voluntary participatory aspect of the programmes must be questioned. As such, a recognition of how young people are impacted by structural inequality is largely absent.

Thus, as An Garda Síochána and marginalised young people possess both polarising and parallel values, norms and behaviours, this can cause an eruption of aggression in their interactions with each other as An Garda Síochána attempt to reaffirm the dominant values of society which are at odds with those held by urban young people experiencing disadvantage and inequality. Therefore, crime prevention initiatives aimed at marginalised young people can be viewed as a form of social control to protect the community from unacceptable behaviour conducted by young people, rather than opportunities for self-improvement for young people.

Wider significance: social control in the neoliberal market

With many police organizations experiencing reform in the Western world, including An Garda Síochána, many have been operating from an ‘evidence-based’, ‘value for money’ and ‘outcomes’ focused model, ensuring the satisfaction of civilians, or ‘consumers’ (Loader, 1999). With GYDPs being administered by the Community Relations Section of An Garda Síochána, who are also responsible for community policing and neighborhood watch, GYDPs are therefore operating on a similar neoliberal model that prioritizes evidence-based, value for money outcomes, such as lower crime rates. This framework deflects from the complex and underlying causalities of youth crime. With marginalised young people growing up in a neoliberal society which demands continuous self-improvement and places a large emphasis on consumerism and material goods, this may lead to many young people experiencing feelings of exclusion and to them continuing in a cycle of anti-social behaviour (Swirak, 2018).

Thus, with the neo-liberal framework that police reform has been built upon, marginalised young people who have come into conflict with the law may be at a disservice through crime prevention programmes that continue to prioritise quantitative results over the lived realities of ‘at-risk’ young people.


This article has highlighted how conservative crime discourse fails to consider crime as a symptom of poverty, disadvantage and marginalization that is caused by structural inequalities. Furthermore, it has explored how the structural forces which disseminate conservative crime discourse are mediated through cultural norms which antagonize marginalised young people and rank-and-file members of An Garda Síochána to come into conflict with each other. Lastly, this article has called attention to the pressing issue of an increasingly neoliberal policing model which in turn effects crime prevention initiatives that continue to give precedence to quantitative outcomes rather than truly examining the structural causes of crime committed by marginalised young people.

Youth & Policy is run voluntarily on a non-profit basis. If you would like to support our work, you can donate below.

Last Updated: 5 May 2021


Bacik, I., Kelly, A., O Connell, M. and Hamish, S. (1997) ‘Crime and Poverty in Dublin: an analysis of the association between community deprivation, District Court appearance and sentence severity’, Irish Criminal Law Journal, 7 (2) ICLJ 104.

Bourdieu, P., and Passeron, J. (1990) Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture, London, UK: Sage.

Bowden, M. (2006) ‘Youth, Governance and the City: Towards a Critical Urban Sociology of Youth Crime and Disorder Prevention’, Youth Studies Ireland, 1(1): 19-39.

Chan, J. (2004) ‘Using Pierre Bourdieu’s framework for understanding police culture’, Droit et Societe, 56-57(1): 327-346.

Charman, S. and Corcoran, D. (2015) ‘Adjusting the police occupational cultural landscape: the case of An Garda Síochána’, Policing and Society, 25:5, 484-503.

Conway, V. (2010) The Blue Wall of Silence: the Morris Tribunal and Police Accountability in Ireland, Kildare: Irish Academic Press.

Department of Children and Youth Affairs. (2014) Better Outcomes Brighter Futures: The National Policy Framework For Children & Young People 2014 – 2020. Dublin: The Stationary Office.

Fionda, J. (2005) Devils and Angels: Youth Policy and Crime, Oxford: Hart Publishing.

Geoghegan, M., Powell, F., Scanlon, M. and Swirak, K. (2012) Youth Policy, Civil Society and the Modern Irish State, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Ilan, J. (2007) Still Playing the Game: an Ethnography of Young People, Street Crime and Juvenile Justice in the Inner-City Dublin Community, Doctoral Thesis, Technological University Dublin.

Ilan, J. (2015) Understanding street culture: poverty, crime, youth and cool, London: Palgrave MacMillan.

Ilan, J. (2018) ‘Scumbags! An ethnography of the interactions between street-based youth and police officers’, Policing and Society, 28 (6): 684-696.

Irish Penal Reform Trust (2012) The Vicious Circle of Social Exclusion and Crime: Ireland’s Disproportionate Punishment of the Poor, Dublin.

Kelling, G. and Wilson, J. (1982) ‘Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety’, Atlantic Monthly, 249 (March 1982): 29-38.

Lawther, G. (2010) ‘’Securing’ the Past: Policing and the Contest over Truth in Northern Ireland’, British Journal of Criminology, 50 (3): 455-473.

Loader, I. (1999) ‘Consumer Culture and the Commodification of Policing and Security’, Sociology, 33(2): 377-39.

Loader, I. and Walker, N. (2001) ‘Policing as a Public Good: Reconstructing the Connections between Police and the State’, Theoretical Criminology, 5: 9-35.

Loftus, B. (2010) ‘Police occupational culture: Classic Themes, Altered Time, Policing and Society’, An International Journal of Research and Policy, 20:1, 1-20.

Murray, C. (1990) The Emerging British Underclass, London: Institute of Economic Affairs.

Mulcahy A. and O’Mahony E. (2005) Policing and Social Marginalisation, Dublin: Combat Poverty Agency.

Office of the Attorney General (2001) The Children Act 2001, Irish Statute Book.

Powell F., Geoghegan, M., Scanlon, M. and Swirak, K. (2012) Youth policy, civil society and the modern Irish state: The politics of youth, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Schwendinger, H. and Schwendinger, J. (1977) ‘Social Class and the Definition of Crime’, Crime and Social Justice, (7): 4-13.

Swirak, K. (2018) ‘A critical analysis of informal youth diversion policy in the Republic of Ireland’, Youth and Policy.

Swirak, K. (2019) ‘Neoliberal subjectivities in a marketized youth justice system’ In: Albertson, K., Corcoran, M, and Phillips, J. (eds). Marketisation and Privatisation in Criminal Justice, Bristol: Policy Press.

Ugwudike, P. (2015) An Introduction to Critical Criminology, Bristol: Policy Press.

Walsh, P. (2014) Care After Prison: Three Year Impact Report 2011 – 2014, Dublin 2: Carmelite Community Centre

Yates, J. (2006) ‘You just don’t grass: youth, crime and grassing in a working class community’, Youth Justice, 6 (3): 195-210.

Youth Work Act (2001) Irish Statue Book, Dublin.


Shannon Hughes Spence is a full time student completing her MSc in Sociology having graduated in 2020 from her undergraduate degree in Community and Youth Development.