Sun | Sep 27, 2020

David Osborne | Making the case for social intervention

Published:Sunday | October 13, 2019 | 12:00 AM
File A man makes a hasty exit from the cordoned-off area in Goldsmith Villa located in August Town, St Andrew, where one person was shot dead and two injured on Sunday, February 17, 2019. There has been a lack of consensus on the impact of social intervention on crime in August Town.
David Osbourne

I consider myself lucky to have two hometowns I love – Kingston, Jamaica, and Glasgow, Scotland, but unfortunately, the two have a sad connection.

My current home, Kingston, Jamaica’s capital and economic hub, is ranked the 16th most dangerous city in the world with a murder rate of 59 per 100,000, while the city of my birth, Glasgow, until recently, had the unenviable reputation as the murder capital of Europe.

Thousands of miles between them, time zones apart, different cultures and economic fortunes, yet the strange truth is that the reasons for both cities’ extreme murder rates are eerily similar.

Case in point, here is an extract of a story captured in the UK’s Guardian newspaper in 2011 : “Gang members, known as ‘young teams’, have their ranks swollen by disenfranchised youths, left hopeless and adrift after years of cutbacks, unemployment, and drug abuse”; “being in a gang was no longer just about territorialism. This was about protecting your patch and therefore protecting a profit”; “every square yard in Glasgow had its own army of young men willing to stab or be stabbed”.

On the background of one ‘young team’ member: “His mother was an alcoholic and lived on state support in one of the 20 most deprived communities in Scotland. He constantly moved home. Initially with his mum. Both mum and son suffered years of violent domestic abuse at the hands of multiple partners. Aged eight, he moved in with his maternal grandmother; his mum couldn’t cope. In the same house lived three adult uncles with some 120 previous convictions between them, mostly for drugs and violence. Between nine and 12, he moved home a further three times. At secondary school, he started to get involved with gangs, was a frequent truant and considered ‘out with parental control’. He was regularly excluded from school and intermittently started to commit petty crimes and develop additions to drugs and alcohol. At 16, he was charged with assault, assault and robbery, and finally, attempted murder and murder. He was found guilty of culpable homicide.”

Unbelievably, at trial, the judge remarked that there was little indication “in the background or supporting evidence suggesting that David is anything other than a pretty ordinary teenager ... [with] a decent and supportive family”.

Most of us will see multiple similarities with the backgrounds of gang members here in Jamaica, the families they come from, the communities and societies they live in. Looking around the world, the sad truth seems to be that extreme levels of violence are caused by social failures, compounded by failures of the systems that are supposed to protect children.

As a kid, when upset, I knew that my home, my bedroom, was a safe space. It was where, like many of us, I would run and hide if I needed comfort. I was lucky. For many, the ‘home’ is where problems start. Research by Professor Gayle and others at UWI has shown how many violent gang members grow up in unstable home, and suffer negligence and often violence and even sexual abuse. Studies have shown that by age five, the damage caused, including to how a child’s brain is wired, is often so severe that you can already predict who will become a violent criminal.

Just stop and think about what has to happen to have lost people at the tender age of five. It is easy to blame the parents, but if we have a little compassion and look into the parents’ childhood, we can quickly see that violence is sadly cyclical. Young adults are often simply treating their kids the way they were taught.


Fortunately, there is another side to such research. If we know by age five who is at risk, we know who we need to support. We know which kids, parents, families, and even communities need help. We can, in most cases, ensure that these vulnerable kids take a different path. The earlier the intervention, the easier and cheaper it is to divert kids to the right path. Leave it too long and all you have is an overwhelming law-enforcement problem. We have to ask ourselves, do we think it easier to reform a hardened criminal in jail or a five-year-old kid in a community?

At the time of writing, Glasgow now has one of the lower murder rates for a large European city. This transformation was not achieved by brilliant policing. Crackdowns, increased foot patrols, stop-and-search tactics, lock-ups weren’t working. The murder detection rate in Glasgow was 99 per cent, but it wasn’t stopping the violence.

What finally and sustainably tackled the problem was a unified effort by social services, supported by law enforcement, led by the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit. They pioneered the understanding that violence works like an infectious disease: it’s passed on. If surrounded by violence and common risk factors, like drug abuse, you are likely to ‘catch it’.

At-risk youth, from birth to young adult, were identified, and social services were procured to treat these kids, adults, and their risk factors. Demand surged for services like parenting support, mentoring, and mental health and drug treatment. For those in gangs, they were given a clear choice: choose to ‘go straight’ and you will get all the support you need; stay a criminal and you will be in jail within a year.

There has been much debate about the CAPRI research on violence in August Town in recent weeks. My organisation funded this paper and others that are forthcoming because we know how hard it is to tackle violence and the better Jamaica-specific research and evidence we have as to what works, the better the chances of managing this epidemic. The CAPRI paper on August Town concluded that we lack the hard evidence to know what worked and what did not in that community.

Based on the discussions I heard in August Town itself, while we may lack robust, independent evidence, community members know what has worked. Personally, having worked all across this beautiful island, I feel the same.

Jamaica has been my home for nearly four years now. In that time, I have seen brilliant people and organisations demonstrate that Jamaica has the ingredients it needs to tackle its murder rate in a sustainable way. We all know stories of brilliant, committed police officers who have transformed communities. Independent evaluation has found that violence interruption (negotiating peace between warring gangs) has slashed the murder rate in some communities by as much as half.

Efforts by Jamaican social workers to assess risks, target, and treat the most vulnerable young adults have successfully diverted around half away from violent criminal gangs (similar efforts in New York only have a 14 per cent success rate). The Parenting Commission has transformed the way some parents raise their children. This work is hard and takes time. Brilliant, committed, often low-paid staff are working with young adults who have been neglected for years.

Sadly, none of this has yet had a major discernible effect on the national murder rate. Looking at Glasgow, or other ‘success stories’ like Rio de Janeiro, the reality is that real change only tends to happen when these social interventions are delivered, alongside effective law enforcement, with intensity, in a targeted manner to a variety of age groups, from birth to late 20s, and over a long time frame.

To break the cycle, we need to treat a generation: that’s 10 to 20 years of patient, consistent effort. A violent adult today is a problem for both social services and the police. Tomorrow’s potentially violent adult is first and foremost a problem for today’s social services.

The Ministry of National Security has developed excellent frameworks for their future efforts to tackle violence: targeting, through both social interventions and law enforcement, the most vulnerable individuals, families and communities and the social norms that encourage violence. If these can be implemented, with focus, intensity and consistency, they could make a major difference.


- David Osborne is country representative of the UK Department for International Development. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm .com and