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Labour hardens up on youth crime

There are children abandoned on the streets of our towns and cities, like the boys marooned on the island in The Lord of the Flies. And like them, they have developed a culture of cruelty, where goodness is marginalised.

This vision Alun Michael, shadow minister for home affairs, presented to a National Children's Bureau conference on "Children in trouble: developing an alternative agenda". Against the scenario of children as young as eight roaming the street, he defended shadow home secretary Jack Straw's proposal of US-style neighbourhood curfews as one way of tackling the escalating levels of youth crime.

He also supported the "get tough on crime and the causes of crime" position of Labour leader Tony Blair. Young people, he said, "must realise that crime will be punished. This is not in support of a punitive approach. But if you don't nip things in the bud when a young person first starts offending, nobody can be surprised if criminal behaviour continues."

He insisted that Labour would "address the reasons for offending and tackle the environment that has allowed crime to escalate".

The rise in the numbers of young offenders under lock and key is due to the introduction of the Criminal Justice Act and the increase in the reporting of crimes. The UK imprisons more young people than any other country in Europe, except Turkey. Between 1992 and 1995 the number of custodial sentences rose by 72 per cent. However, Home Office figures do show a proportionate decline in the number of 10- to 13-year-olds being sentenced.

Barry Anderson, head of the youth crime section at the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, sees the trend to more and longer sentencing of young people as "the swing from one extreme of cautioning as a means of decriminalising young people in the 1980s to the present, punitive approach. It's being politically driven, with no intelligent appraisal of the '80s approach." An analysis of cautioning shows that 87 per cent of young people cautioned after their first offence did not offend again. "What we should be doing is focusing resources on developing a good service for the remaining 13 per cent."

Another way of keeping young people away from crime is a youth service that is relevant, innovative and challenging. As well as divesting them from the crime in the streets around them, youth clubs and community projects can teach young people marketable skills. Swingeing local authority cuts have torn into many such projects. Said Merlynne Francique of the National Youth Agency, "Give us the tools and we'll do the job."

Everyone involved with young offenders agrees on the need for a co-ordinated system that brings together all the relevant agencies - education, social services, health and criminal justice - to work together on children's services plans. As Barry Anderson said: "We're all agreed, from Michael Howard to NACRO, that the current system isn't working."

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