A black farce was acted out at Newark Court in Nottinghamshire two months ago. A defendant who had been charged with 64 offences since Christmas was ordered to stand up in the dock by the clerk of the court. "He is standing up," his solicitor replied. What the clerk did not know was that the boy was only 10 years old and 3ft 11ins tall.
The court clerk is, however, not the only one who has been reminded that juvenile crime can no longer be associated with post-adolescent teenagers. Last week we heard the disturbing news that four 10-year-old boys and a nine-year-old classmate had allegedly raped a nine-year-old girl in the toilets of a West London school, and last month a 10-year-old was charged with raping a 12-year-old boy and sent to a secure unit.
Under such circumstances - and with the ghost of Jamie Bulger still ever-present - it is unsurprising that the Labour Government should want to carry out its planned crackdown on child crime. Its Crime and Disorder Bill is tough, but perhaps less draconian than some people feared. The predicted blanket curfews that were supposed to toll the knell of parting libertarianism will not be introduced after all. Instead, the police will, quite sensibly, be able to pick up children aged 10 or under who are out on the streets at night. But as more than 125 major US cities have introduced curfews to reduce youth crime it may be only a matter of time before the most troubled of Britain's inner-city areas follow suit.
Much will, of course, depend on the success of the other proposals Mr Straw has outlined. His plans to speed young offenders' progress through the courts, and oblige local authorities to promote community safety will meet little opposition.
Forcing offenders and their parents to make reparation to crime victims will also be popular. But it seems bizarre that Mr Straw should insist on amending a medieval law (doli incapax: incapable of evil) because it makes it too difficult to convict child offenders. Excessive kindness was not one of the medieval lawmakers' more evident failings.
Replacing cautions for a first offence with a "final warning" is another indication that the state is now a stern governess rather than a nanny. But Mr Straw and his Cabinet colleagues know that they must do more than wave a big stick. Families in deprived areas must get the support they have been promised. And even more effort should be put into education programmes aimed at disaffected youth (see FE Focus, page 33) because two-thirds of school-age offenders are either excluded from school or persistent truants. Mr Straw must also commission research to establish what form of punishment is most effective with young offenders - unbelievably there has been no systematic attempt to do this so far.
And the country must wish him well in his quest for solutions because demographic trends are not in his favour. Ten years from now Britain will have an additional 211,000 15 to 19-year-old boys - and potentially 10,000 more criminal teenagers. If those figures do not concentrate the Home Office ministers' minds, it is hard to think what will.