Labour's pledge to be tough on the causes of criminal behaviour will be reflected in an autumn White Paper, reports Harvey McGavin
The Government's plans to tackle juvenile crime have been given a lukewarm welcome by groups dealing with young offenders.
Home Secretary Jack Straw reinforced the Labour party's pledge to be "tough on the causes of crime" by announcing a series of measures aimed at reducing teenage lawbreaking to be contained in a Crime and Disorder White Paper expected in the autumn.
The main proposals are to: * Set up a Youth Justice Task Force, made up of representatives from the police, probation and social services, the Crown Prosecution Service and other groups to recommend changes.
* Introduce "fast track" punishment for persistent young offenders by halving the time between arrest and sentencing, currently averaging four-and-a-half months.
* Replace repeat cautions with a "final warning".
* Scrap the legal doctrine of doli incapax, which assumes 10 to 13 year olds are not capable of serious wrongdoing.
* Give courts new sentencing powers to make action plan orders, parental responsibility orders and reparation orders.
"We want to bring the victim into the heart of the system," Jack Straw said. "It is getting across to these kids that there are victims of their actions. If somebody has robbed somebody else, they would have to make amends."
This could involve young offenders apologising to their victims or carrying out odd jobs, with the victim having a say in the offender's punishment. But Helen Peggs, of the National Association of Victim Support Schemes, said any such measures could only work in consultation with the victim. "What's important is that somebody asks the victim what they want. Quite often victims want the state to deal with it and to be kept informed. They don't want any more hassle and they don't want anything to do with the offender.
"In the past these kind of reparation schemes have often been pre-sentence, and the victim has been told if you don't agree to this then the offender will end up in prison, which can make them feel guilty if they say no."
Speeding up court procedures would avoid repeat offending while on bail, Mr Straw said.
But according to Mike Thomas, chair of the National Association for Youth Justice, which represents probation officers and social workers, this was a reaction to a public perception rather than a response to actual evidence, which he said was inconclusive.
He applauded the new multi-agency task force and suggested that this could be applied to supervision orders so that teachers worked alongside probation officers and social workers in overseeing young offenders.
But more effort should be made to keep children in school and out of court. "We ought to be putting more emphasis on keeping youngsters in mainstream education because once they are marginalised they are more likely to turn to petty offending. We have forgotten what it is like to provide resources for children - the majority of social workers' time these days is spent on child protection orders - and there needs to be a shift to focus on preventative measures."
Rather than amending the law of doli incapax, the Government should increase the age of criminal responsibility to 14, in line with most other European countries.
"That would stop the young person being criminalised. Those that are sentenced to custody grow into offending and very few people stop offending overnight. We need to question whether the number of children who go through the court system really need to be there."
The system of cautions should be retained, he said. "Eighty per cent of those who are cautioned don't come to the notice of the police again within two years. Once you get to court no other sentence is likely to have that effect. "
The Magistrates Association said the current system of repeated cautions was inappropriate, and welcomed the introduction of a "final warning"-style single caution. "It sounds like a one and only caution, so that if you offend again you would be back in court," said the association's chair Anne Fuller. "But we would have to see more details about what they are proposing."
She said the "caution-plus" scheme, which operates in some parts of the country, whereby young offenders are made to address their behaviour, had been quite successful but needed a more long-term evaluation. "The problem is that there are no sanctions for those who don't comply."
The Magistrates Association has already issued its own guidelines to youth court panels, instructing them to deal with cases more rapidly - although part of the problem was that there were often long delays before the case could come to court.
Schools should be more closely involved in the youth courts, Mrs Fuller said. Some magistrates were now asking to see a child's school reports in addition to pre-sentence reports.
"It can be extremely helpful for a school to know if a youngster is in trouble, not because they want to point the finger but because it can explain changes in the mood or behaviour of the child. Quite often the school knows nothing about it," she added.
THE COST OF YOUTH CRIME TO THE COMMUNITY
Youth crime costs public services Pounds 1 billion per annum - Pounds 660 million of it in police time.
26 per cent of known offenders are under 18 - they commit around seven million crimes a year.
5 per cent of 14 to 17-year-olds commit 68 per cent of the crimes committed by their age group.
Forty per cent of youth crime is committed in 10 per cent of the country.
From arrest to sentence takes an average of between 70 and 170 days.
42 per cent of school-age offenders sentenced at court have been excluded from school, and a further 23 per cent are truants.
41 per cent of young offenders are said to break the law because family or friends do.
Among children who disliked school or underperformed,girls were more likely to offend than boys.
78 per cent of boys and 53 per cent of girls who truanted once a week were likely to offend.
Handling stolen goods, fighting, burglary (boys) and shoplifting (girls) are the most common criminal activities of 14- to 17-year-olds.
Asked what would stop them offending, 23 per cent replied "A job", 10 per cent "prison" and 2 per cent "nothing".
(Sources: Audit Commission and Home Office)