A quick internet search will reveal a subgenre of homemade joyriding videos uploaded by teenagers across the UK. These clips typically show rather grainy footage of several cars being raced around housing estates, while their young drivers perform tricks and stunts to the cheers and support of numerous onlookers. In this highly interesting and readable book, Heather Hamill takes us into the world of young car thieves from West Belfast, known locally as "hoods". These young people inhabit a world where poverty, unstable family backgrounds and alienation from mainstream society are the norm. Car crime, along with extensive alcohol and drug consumption, offers a release from the tedium of everyday life.
To anyone engaged in the study of teenage delinquency, these findings are all too familiar. However, the social context of West Belfast is radically different from that experienced by teenage delinquents living in other jurisdictions, and it is this uniqueness that makes this work such an important contribution to the literature on juvenile crime.
Northern Ireland is slowly emerging from a prolonged period of political conflict. During the Troubles, Republican neighbourhoods were virtual no-go areas for the state security forces. The police were not seen as legitimate agents of law and order; rather they were feared and distrusted. In such a policing vacuum, local residents turned towards paramilitary organisations such as the IRA to provide a functioning justice system, including the investigation of local crimes, detaining offenders, determining guilt and apportioning punishment.
This informal justice system has been relatively slow to dissipate in post-conflict Northern Ireland. For the hoods, the one main difference between the state justice system and the paramilitary alternative is the severity of the punishments handed out. Depending on the gravity of their offences, persistent young offenders run the risk of being placed under curfew, exiled from Northern Ireland (on either a temporary or permanent basis), viciously beaten with baseball bats, or shot in the hands, legs or back.
The central question that Hamill attempts to answer is why these young people are not deterred by punishments of such severity that even the most vociferous member of the "hang 'em and flog 'em" brigade would consider them a step too far. Not only do these sanctions fail to deter offenders, but when extreme punishments such as the "six-pack" (being shot in each knee, ankle and thigh) are dispensed, the hood on the receiving end often continues to engage in criminal activities.
At one level, this is a highly focused and detailed study. It examines a small select group of persistent and prolific offenders drawn from a specific geographic location. Yet, at another level it addresses some of the most fundamental issues surrounding the structure and administration of justice, in particular the function and effectiveness of deterrents, punishments and rehabilitation.
Hamill argues that it is the search for status within a masculine working-class culture that drives offending among the hoods. When legitimate means of accruing standing and reputation among peers, such as academic achievement or employment success, are no longer within reach, and when previous illegitimate routes to power and authority through membership of a paramilitary group are on the decline, some young people turn to fighting and stealing cars as a way to establish and demonstrate their power and reputation.
What is particularly innovative about this work is the application of game theory to account for the complex pattern of interactions between the hoods and the paramilitary enforcers. Here, both the offending behaviour (including the YouTube clips mentioned above) and the scars from previous punishment beatings are visible and explicit signals of a hood's strength, toughness and prestige.
The Hoods: Crime and Punishment in Belfast
By Heather Hamill. Princeton University Press. 200pp. £20.95. ISBN 9780691119632. Published 4 January 2011.