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Alarm bells over rise in crime referrals

REFERRALS to children's panels last year were up by 6 per cent because of the rising number of crimes committed by under-16s, according to the annual report of the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration. In 1998-99, there were 42,656 referrals.

Crime consistently accounts for nearly 60 per cent of the workload of panels. Offences include taking cars, shoplifting, housebreaking and vandalism. The elderly are a favourite target and mini crime waves involve small numbers of persistent offenders.

The Scottish Health Statistics, also just published, indicate that alcohol is a significant factor, especially among boys. Drink is available in almost every household as well as in supermarkets and corner shops, and in 1998 boys consumed an average of 12.8 units a week, an increase of nearly a unit a week from 1996.

Young people are prone to binges and do not think through the consequences of what are often impetuous and unpremeditated offences. A 16-year-old convicted of the attempted murder of a 79-year-old spinster last week was described by his counsel as having been "very drunk".

Levels of parental supervision, together with the company young people keep, are highly significant in relation to crime. The statistics show a massive rise f 22 per cent in the number of referrals of children deemed out of parental control and a 27 per cent rise in referrals on grounds of moral danger or bad associations.

Orders for residential care were issued for 1,148 children. But pioneering research by Sonia Jackson of Swansea University, shows this does little for the young person's chances of succeeding in education (and therefore of keeping out of trouble) unless care workers take over the parent's role.

Numbers being sent to children's homes remain static, but there has been a 23 per cent rise, to 76, in referrals to secure units, often because previous care arrangements have broken down or because of persistent crimes.

The recently established Youth Crime Review Advisory Group is due to report in the spring to Sam Galbraith, Minister for Children and Education, on "the scope for improving the range and availability of options aimed at addressing the actions of persistent young offenders". Senior policy-makers are already known to favour community-based solutions such as Freagarrach, the multi-agency project backed by Central Police.

Evaluation of the project by Lancaster University showed a reduction of 600 in the annual statistic for victims of crime. Gerry McCann

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