Leave those kids alone

Criminalising young people is counterproductive and creates lifelong offenders. Rather, we need a co

Where was law and order in the 2010 election? During the campaign, there were arguments about civil liberties, identity cards and immigration control. But the election was the first in over 30 years in which law and order barely figured. This is even more striking given that 2010 will go down as a political turning point.

In 1979, the Conservative Party made law and order central to its drive for power, capturing significant numbers of core Labour voters. In 1997, New Labour reversed the trick, overtaking the Tories on the right and distancing itself from Old Labour's law-challenging radicalism. Most of New Labour's effort went on the first half of its populist slogan "Tough on crime; tough on the causes of crime". Perhaps 2010 will signal a welcome cooling of the law-and-order party-political arms race.

No serious analyst of law-and-order policies believes that either the welter of new legislation that has afflicted our criminal justice system or the locking up of increasing numbers of offenders has made us safer in our beds at night. There is general agreement that the time has come to roll back our heavy use of criminal justice interventions and stop talking up the potency of criminal law to solve our social ills.

On 30 March, just over a month before polling day, Iain Duncan Smith argued in a speech at the Attlee Foundation in London that we could not "arrest our way out of our problems". At the same event, by contrast, Chris Grayling promised "robust policing", but he was not heard
of for the rest of the campaign. Grayling may not get it, but most politicians now do. They privately agree with the Treasury that a grave
financial crisis should not go to waste.

The major cuts in public spending in the policy pipeline provide an opportunity for us to stop doing a few things we should never have done - chief among them criminalising and locking up so many children and young people, thereby grooming a new generation of long-term adult criminals from whose depredations we will all suffer.

The trend is clear. Even though the volume of crimes, including those for which young people are responsible, has fallen since the mid-1990s, by 2007 there were more than twice as many children in custody as at the beginning of the 1990s. The increase is not explained by a corresponding rise in serious crime by children. Events such as the murder of James Bulger in February 1993 or the torture of two boys in Edlington, South Yorkshire, in April 2009, are thankfully rare. In that sense, Britain is no more broken today than it was 20 years ago.

Paying the price

Nor should we get hung up about offensive, antisocial behaviour committed by young people. That may have got worse, but no one seriously believes that the problem is best solved by putting already disaffected and typically disadvantaged youths behind bars. At roughly £100,000 a year, this costs more than three times as much as sending a child to Eton, and the outcome is not an enhanced prospect of becoming prime minister, but typically a lifelong relationship with the revolving door of Pentonville. As the former Conservative home secretary David Waddington confessed, it is an expensive way of making bad people worse.

So, how to save taxpayers money and better protect us from being victimised? It is a good first step that the plan to build a 360-bed young offender institution (YOI) outside Leicester has been scrapped. The proposal was undesirable and unnecessary. The youth custody population of England and Wales has fallen in the past two years from 3,000 to roughly 2,200. The surplus capacity this creates should allow the Youth Justice Board, which commissions custodial places for under-18s, to avoid unsuitable establishments. Indeed, it should be thinking about a completely different residential model.

The new government should now also do the following. First, a new agency should be created, separate from the prison service, to manage all accommodation for young offenders - the local authority secure homes, the commercially run secure training centres and the YOIs. This would make for coherent national planning, which is at present lacking.

This new agency should consider piloting a community-oriented institution along the lines of the proposed Young Offender Academy investigated over the past three years by a working party with the Foyer Federation, the support agency for youngsters making the transition to adulthood. We must keep the secure homes for younger children provided by local authorities. They are expensive, but they provide the sort of one-to-one care needed by children who have done dreadful things but are often both neglected and disturbed. In addition, we must explore an alternative model to the big YOI, an outmoded tool that should have been consigned to the penal dustbin.

Most of the cost of youth custody should be transferred from central government to the local authorities from which the young people come. This proposition has been pondered indecisively in Whitehall for several years. It must now be done. It would be the best way to give an incentive to the local authorities to invest in crime-preventive community programmes (research shows that confidence in these programmes is critical in persuading sentencers to avoid the use of custody). If this happened, a question mark would hang over the continued need for the Youth Justice Board.

The thousands of young people locked up each year spend, on average, 14 weeks in custody. It is wrong that a high proportion of them are held far from home, and unsurprising that the overwhelming majority are reconvicted within 12 months of getting out. Preventing youth crime involves determining responsibility and fixing consequences. But it also involves promoting positive, law-abiding opportunities and working with families as well as individual offenders - not further dislocating already fragile relationships. None of these processes is best achieved by transporting teenage offenders to large, distant, prison-like institutions.

Too much too soon

Finally, the conviction on 24 May of two boys aged ten and 11 on a charge of attempted rape of an eight-year-old girl should lead the government to reconsider the age of criminal responsibility. It is not in the interests of any child, either victim or offender, or society at large, that children as young as this undergo adversarial criminal justice proceedings. Such matters are, if necessary, better dealt with by the family courts and childcare proceedings.

Law-and-order services, which cost just under 6 per cent of overall public expenditure, are not going to be among the heaviest hit in the period 2011-2014. Policing, which claims the largest share of the pot, is too politically sensitive for that. But things are nonetheless going to be tough for front-line practitioners. There will be significant cuts. This makes it imperative that we shift the centre of expenditure gravity from that which is totemic to something that has a prospect of working

Rod Morgan was chairman of the Youth Justice Board from 2004-2007

Crime and punishment

Levels of youth crime have decreased overall since the early 1990s. However, during this time, there has been an increased use of custodial sentences for children and young people. In 1999, Home Office figures showed that while the level of detected youth crime had fallen by 16 per cent since 1992, custodial sentencing had more than doubled.

Tony Blair's establishment of the Youth Justice Board in 2000 continued this trend. While the government was keen to trumpet the success of its reform, a report by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies said that youth offending had barely changed, but more children had been criminalised or imprisoned. It is a vicious cycle: the same report found that reoffending rates were highest among those who had had a custodial sentence.

Recent years have brought a sharp decline in youth crime: a 10.2 per cent drop between 2005 and 2008. However, this figure fails to take account of more than 19,000 children and young people issued with penalty notices for disorder or antisocial behaviour orders. If such children were included, the 10.2 per cent drop would be nearly eliminated.

This points to a problem in the statistical analysis of youth crime, which is the changing definition of what constitutes a crime, and how harshly it is punished. Crime levels may be unchanged, but criminalisation is rising.

Samira Shackle