Sorry is the hardest word

7th November 1997, 12:00am
Diane Spencer


Sorry is the hardest word
Jack Straw - like all parents - wants teenagers to say they're sorry when they've done something wrong.

The Home Secretary told a London conference last week: "I find it quite extraordinary that young offenders are rarely asked to write an apology to their victims. Many secondary schools use this simple, but effective technique.

"If we don't get the youth justice system right, then the schools cop it. They are already facing increasing bad behaviour because of the failure of the system outside their gates. I speak as a school governor, not from the lofty heights of Queen Anne's Gate (The Home Office headquarters)."

Mr Straw was praising the pioneering project run by Thames Valley Police on restorative justice, which forces young criminals to face up to their behaviour. Based on a Maori tradition, the scheme will feature in the Government's forthcoming Crime and Disorder Bill.

It is based on three principles: restoration, reintegration and responsibility. The first involves ways of making practical or emotional amends for the harm done to the victim under a reparation order for 10 to 17-year-olds. If the victim agrees, the offender could apologise, pay for or repair damage, or clean up graffiti.

"I want to see far more emphasis put on ensuring that young offenders understand the effects that their actions inflict on victims and the community.

"Young offenders should be confronted with their behaviour, not excused from it. Only then can we break the cycle of criminality which allows them to grow into tomorrow's career criminals."

Reintegration means dealing with youngsters in a way that does not ostracise them, but gives them a chance to rejoin the law-abiding community. Government proposals to prevent truancy and school exclusions were in line with this, as early intervention could prevent children who are in trouble at school from turning to crime.

The statutory final warning scheme to replace cautioning will provide an excellent opportunity to use more widely the ideas pioneered in Thames Valley, he said.

The third and most important principle means young offenders taking responsibility for their actions, parents accepting responsibility for care and control of their children, and the community taking responsibility for resolving and helping to prevent crime, he said.

Delegates, mainly from police, probation and social services, watched a re-enactment of a community conference based on a real case history showing how restorative justice worked.

A police constable arranges for two boys who have stolen cars to meet the two owners. At first all are apprehensive, defensive and sceptical. But gradually attitudes change, with the youths realising how their behaviour had badly affected the lives, not only of their victims, but their families. They apologise, at first automatically, then genuinely, and offer to pay for the damage.

Mr Straw had sat in on a similar, but real-life, conference in Aylesbury and found it impressive and very different from his observations of youth courts. "All too often young offenders are simply spectators in court, alienated from the proceedings; they and their parents are talked at, talked about, but only rarely talked with."

He said the reforms would be paid for out of existing funds, and delivered a scathing attack on the current youth justice system: "It is dreadful and wasteful of Pounds 1,000 million of resources. I'm not going to ask my Cabinet colleagues for more money as I'm not going to throw good money after bad. "

As chair of governors at Pimlico comprehensive in London, he has learned that good management could raise standards despite rising rolls and declining funds. But his work as a lawyer has also taught him that the criminal justice system has been immune from efficiency drives: "This has to change."

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