There seems to be a general acceptance that today’s young people are a more unruly, criminal lot than ever before. The media feed us a constant stream of negative images: young people in hoodies lurking on street corners, ‘thugs’, ‘louts’ and ‘yobbos’ running amok in our communities.
We know this is an exaggerated picture, but it is hard not to be influenced. It can lead to knee-jerk political responses, such as slapping ASBOs on children as young as ten. It has almost certainly contributed to the eightfold rise in the use of custody for children aged 10-15 years that has occurred since 1990.
The reality is of course more complex than media images or political rhetoric suggest.
Children are far more likely to be the victims of crime than its perpetrators. They are responsible for just 12% of crime and youth crime has been falling since 1992. Yet we lock up more children than almost any other European country – four times as many as France - and our age of criminal responsibility is one of the lowest, at 10 years.
Set against the alarming stories of youth misdemeanours and crime, are a battery of positive statistics pumped out by the Government, about how young people are achieving better than ever before – gaining good exam results, continuing to university, driving growth in high skills sectors of the economy. We have only to look around us to observe the greater material wealth of the I-POD generation.
But this creates new pressures and a widening gap between the affluent majority and those who grow up in poverty. Nearly one in three children in the UK - 3.8 million – live in poverty. Despite significant investment by the Government, last year child poverty rates rose for the first time in six years. The likelihood of remaining in poverty for those born into poverty has actually increased.
This matters hugely because poverty blights children’s life-chances. It goes hand-in-hand with a multitude of risk factors - family breakdown, neglect and abuse, poor housing, poor health, educational underachievement, truancy and exclusion and yes, crime.
Political and media discourse seldom tell the whole story. Children are portrayed either as innocent victims of their circumstances or, to use the disgraceful but popular stereotype, as ‘feral youth’. As Chief Executive of Barnardo’s and formerly Head of the Prison Service, I know that all too often those young children born into poverty and subjected to abuse or neglect grow up to be the delinquent teenagers we lock up in the secure estate.
Demonising children may make good copy (I have my doubts) but it does not make for good policy. So what is needed?
A concerted effort to end child poverty, reaching out to the most disadvantaged families.
Investment in early years and parenting support, building on the successes of Sure Start.
Intervening early when things go wrong, rather than waiting until crisis point is reached - for example, extending the holistic, preventive support offered by Youth Offending Teams, rather than issuing ever more ASBOs.
Most of all, we must never give up on a child. Even if a young person has to go to prison for committing a serious crime, we need to use that episode to get to the root of their difficulties and enable them to change their life for the better.
Children are our future. We can either support them to grow into responsible citizens and valued members of the community or we can reinforce their disadvantage by ridiculing them in the media, expelling them from school and locking them up - pushing them further to the margins, when they most need our help.
The choice is obvious. There is an urgent moral and economic case to invest in children now. Just as importantly, we need to start believing in them.