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Milestones on road to life of crime

Is a low birth weight the first of many signs of a potential young offender? The Audit Commission's latest research centres on ways to identify and help this group. Susan Young reports. Structured nursery provision and anti-exclusion programmes should become part of locally co-ordinated programmes to cut youth crime, according to a new report by the Audit Commission.

Around Pounds 1 billion is being spent every year on mopping up the effects of juvenile delinquency, but little is being done to tackle the causes of such behaviour and there is almost no monitoring of reoffending rates.

In a new report, Misspent Youth: Young People and Crime, the Audit Commission says the money would be far more effectively spent in co-ordinated attempts to tackle the causes of youth crime. It suggests that Pounds 40 million being spent in processing young offenders could immediately be diverted to such programmes, with a greater proportion to be transferred in the future.

Mark Perfect and Judy Renshaw, the report's authors, said they had found it instructive sitting in youth courts while numbers of highly-paid professionals went through cases of teenagers stealing from shops, or fights, often between girls. "As one boy left after five minutes, I heard him say 'What was that about?" said Mr Perfect.

The researchers argue that the risk factors for juvenile offending are now well-known, and it should be possible for an across-the-board range of preventive services to be targeted on particular districts.

For this to happen, the report recommends that the Government should lay a statutory duty on local authorities to set up inter-agency groups and the relevant Government departments should themselves be working together.

This, however, may prove the undoing of the report. Turf wars between Government departments have traditionally militated against co-ordinated action over groups such as young people.

Moreover, the report's general message that the causes of crime need to be addressed runs somewhat counter to the Home Secretary's stance on "Prison works", with boot camps for hardened young offenders.

Another factor against implementation may be that in at least two important instances the report is, by implication, diametrically opposed to Government policies.

Structured nursery education for three and four-year-olds at risk, provided by the local authority, is recommended by the Audit Commission only a week after the Government began plugging its nursery vouchers scheme nationwide.

And its identification of exclusion as a major risk factor for youth crime could perhaps be embarrassing, since the numbers of children kept out of school have risen dramatically since its policy of market forces in education began to bite.

Factors which may help the report's acceptance are the current mood of gloom about the nation's youth, its suggestion that money could be used more productively to prevent crime, and the fact that many of its ideas - for example on helping parents with child-rearing techniques - are already being publicly debated as part of the moral panic and Labour's new paper on parenting.

Interestingly, it will be difficult to tell, even if the new strategies are implemented, if they are cutting rates of reoffending. Few districts have evaluated the effectiveness of different approaches to juvenile offenders, whether cautions or other action.

The Audit Commission has enlisted local auditors to report back next year and in 1999 on the workings of their youth justice system to gain more information about the value of different approaches.

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