Charity attacks Act as 'big stick'

2nd October 1998 at 01:00
Legislation intended to curb youth crime is now in force. Diane Spencer assesses its potential reach and impact.

THE new Crime and Disorder Act, which came into force in England and Wales this week, will undermine families, the Children's Society has warned. It says the law will lead to more children being locked up.

Roger Smith, head of the society's social policy unit, said the parenting orders, which can require a parent or guardian to attend counselling, could be counter-productive. Encouragement and persuasion should be tried before "the big stick".

The Government is still relying on "one particular tired old failure of a solution - prison custody". The Act promises no progress at all in the removal of children from remands to custody, he said.

"Not only is the use of custody a costly option, not only is it virtually guaranteed to turn out faster, fitter criminals like all previous such experiments, but it also directly contravenes the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child."

"No other European country feels the need to incarcerate child offenders in this way."

The society is concerned that the 1991 Criminal Justice Act's provision to end custodial remands for under-17s has never been implemented.

Children who were a danger to themselves or the public were to be remanded directly to local authority secure accommodation, not locked up with adults.

The extra places needed to accommodate them were never built and the number of 15 and 16-year olds remanded to adult prisons escalated as the approach to youth crime became more punitive.

The new Act has many implications for schools and education authorities as it seeks to address the causes of crime as well as reducing it. Sections of the Act which could affect the education system include: Sex offender order: Section 2, to start in December, gives police the power to apply for an order in the magistrates' court against any previously-convicted offender whose behaviour is giving the community cause for concern: hanging about a school playground, for example.

Local strategies for reducing crime and disorder: Sections 5-7 and 17, to start now, require local authorities and police to publish three-year strategies, including targets, on how they intend to tackle crime. The first step will be an audit of crime patterns in the area, in consultation with the community. Schools are likely to be involved in plans to deal with unruly pupils, truants and exclusions.

Parenting orders: Sections 8-10 will be piloted for 18 months with a view to beginning in 20002001. Parenting orders are intended to help and support parents or guardians tackle their child's anti-social or offending behaviour. They will also cover truancy. Parents could be required to attend counselling or guidance sessions for up to three months, or encouraged to exercise more control over the child.

Child safety orders: Sections 11-13 will be piloted for 18 months, due to come into force in 200001. The new child safety orders give family magistrates powers to help prevent the under-10s getting involved in crime. The court will nominate a supervisor to ensure the child gets proper care and education.

Local child curfews and power for the police to remove truants: Sections 14-16, to start now, allow local authorities to introduce child curfew schemes to deal with children on the streets unsupervised by parents or a responsible adult between 9pm and 6am for a maximum of 90 days. If a police officer believes a child has breached the curfew he or she can take the child home or into police protection.

In co-operation with local education authorities and schools, the police will be allowed to take a child found in a public place, absent from class without authority back to school, or to another place designated by the local authority, such as some kind of special unit.

Abolition of Doli Incapax: The act abolishes the presumption that a child is incapable of telling the difference between naughtiness and serious wrong-doing. All those over the age of criminal responsibility - 10 to 13 - will be treated in the same way as other juveniles - 14 to 17-year-olds - when deciding whether a prosecution is appropriate or not.

Youth justice: Sections 37-42 are aimed at preventing offending, and at the core will be youth offending teams (YOTs). Local authorities must establish a team for their area, or work with a neighbouring area. Teams will include a person nominated by the chief education officer to work with members from social services, probation, health and police departments. YOTs should be operating by April 2000.

A "final warning" scheme will replace the system of cautioning. A rehabilitation programme determined by the YOT could include education or training. The action plan order, a new community sentence to tackle the cause of a child's offending behaviour, could involve schools or special units.

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