Better pre-school provision and a reduction in truancy and exclusion rates are the keys to preventing the emergence of a new generation of criminals, according to policy think-tank Demos.
Turning the tide, a report to be released next week, calls for "a radical shift in the way we think about crime".
Its author, Jon Bright, of the pressure group Crime Concern, argues that only by directing resources away from dealing with offenders and towards preventing them offending in the first place can society reverse the trend of rising crime.
The "school effect" - reducing exclusions, stimulating parental involvement, preventing bullying and truancy, broadening the curriculum and using peer education - can be a deciding factor in stopping young people from turning to crime, the report says.
Schools that exclude their most difficult pupils and fail to deal with truancy, however, may only be adding to the problem.
"Some schools in high crime areas have low delinquency rates, while others in low crime areas have high rates," the report points out.
"This suggests that schools are able to exert an independent influence on student behaviour."
By contrast, it suggests, good pre-school provision in smaller classes - the report recommends two teachers for groups of 20 - child-initiated learning and increasing pupil participation have a "ratchet effect", leading to a drop in anti-social behaviour, and would pay for themselves by reducing the cost of future crime.
The report cites one headteacher who gave his pupils responsibility for Pounds 200,000 of the school budget and saw the cost of vandalism at the school fall by 75 per cent over three years.
Studies in Britain, the United States and the Netherlands have all shown that pre-school participation can reduce rates of delinquency.
"The early years are especially important because what happens then may start a chain of events leading into later life.
"But if early preventive experience is to have a permanent effect, it must be subsequently reinforced and built on. Hence good pre-school education must be followed by good primary and secondary education and services aimed at diverting young people from crime."
Youth justice, page 4 "Turning the tide: crime, community and prevention" by Jon Bright. Pounds 12.95 from Demos: 0171 353 4479.