TEACHING young people about substance abuse and teenage pregnancy is more cost-effective than specific programmes to prevent youth crime, according to a comprehensive Scottish Executive review published last week.
Raising achievement among pupils who fail at school is equally important but focused pre-fives work is most likely to slash crime figures in the long-term, it argues.
The review rejects the popular view that locking up young criminals stops them reoffending and backs early intervention and the value of education in tackling youth crime. It wants agencies to promote parenting skills, make the most of new community schools, improve transitions in young people's lives, tackle drug and alcohol abuse, and support community education.
Figures show that youth crime is levelling out but one in three of all offences are still committed by young people aged 8-20, mostly by males. Some estimates suggest that the bill for youth crime runs to pound;730 million a year.
Studies in the United States indicate that the most valuable ways of preventing crime are by home visiting and pre-school education programmes where nurses, health visitors and social workers are involved in training the parents of young children.
Crime rates in a US control group were 40 per cent lower by the age of 19. The group performed better in school and adult education and were more likely to graduate and move into a job. Teenage pregnancy rates were down by half.
The report, entitled Youth Crime in Scotland, says that there is an "almost unanimous view among practitioners, professionals and academics" that imprisonment is not particularly effective in contrast to behaviour, social and mediation programmes. One Scottish project has cut reoffending rates by 60 per cent.
Community-based, non-custodial options are more effective and cost no more than young offenders' institutions, it points out.
The report, drafted by Kenneth Hogg in the policy review unit and supported by a broad-based working group, says risk facors are multiple and detectable early in a child's life and can be tackled as part of wider programmes to improve their life chances. Exclusion - from school, home or community - heightens the danger.
The group accepts that young males will always test adult boundaries, leading to an inevitable degree of youth crime, but "the evidence suggests that early intervention can help young people develop the social skills, confidence, self-esteem and sense of security which avoids the need to test the boundaries later on".
Parenting skills programmes emerge as the most significant strategy in countering anti-social behaviour the report contends.
It further advocates stability at school transition points. Primary teachers, for example, could ask for help from health visitors.
The group also calls for a review of the investment in community education and more secure funding for voluntary organisations, given their role in working with young people on the edge of crime and in social education programmes.
The report accepts that the children's hearings system is effective in dealing with younger first offenders but fails with those aged 14 to 16 and with persistent and serious offenders.
The biggest cuts in reoffending are likely to come from targeting work on the small number of persistent offenders who commit disproportionately large amounts of crime, it argues.
PATTERNS THAT LEAD TO OFFENDING
Teenage mothers, absent fathers, substance abuse during pregnancy.
Poor parenting, erratic or harsh discipline, parental conflict, anti-
social or criminal parents.
Poverty and links to poor health and housing, low income, behavioural problems.
Hyperactivity and impulsivity leading to low school attainment and poor ability to foresee consequences of action, difficulty with abstract thinking.
Low intelligence that can be measured at the age of three.
Disaffection and exclusion from school.
Association with delinquent peers. Leader and Platform, page 12