Tough on preventing youth crime

13th February 1998 at 00:00
Biddy Passmore reports on moves to tackle offending before it becomes a habit

Schools would not be able to function if they took as long to deal with bad behaviour as the courts do with juvenile crime, according to Home Secretary Jack Straw.

"A young offender who commits an offence today will have to wait on average until the middle of June to be sentenced," he told a recent conference on youth justice in London. If schools had to wait that long, they would almost certainly have forgotten what the bad behaviour was.

The Government's first priority was to halve the time between arrest and sentence for persistent young offenders, he said.

Mr Straw underlined how important it was to support young people awaiting trial or sentence. Home Office research shows that young people are two or three times more likely than adults to offend while on court bail.

The Government's Crime and Disorder Bill, now in the House of Lords, will place a duty on local authorities to ensure support for young people on bail is available in their area.

But the Home Secretary stressed that Labour's main aim was to prevent offending in the first place. "Too little is done when children start to offend to intervene positively in their lives All too often they receive repeat cautions without any effective intervention," he said.

To stop children under 10 from being drawn into crime, local authorities will be given powers under the Bill to enforce curfews. A child safety order, available in the family proceedings court, is intended to help protect specified children under 10. And a parenting order will require mothers and fathers to attend guidance sessions and may also make them do what the court says is needed to help them control their child's behaviour.

Repeat cautions are to be replaced with a two-tier system: a formal reprimand for a less serious first offence and a final warning for more serious or subsequent offences that will trigger a tailor-made intervention programme for the offender and his or her family. After that, a further offence will lead to a court appearance.

Once in court, young offenders may be given an action plan order giving them and their families an intensive programme combining punishment, reparation and rehabilitation, as an alternative to custody.

Under the Bill, local authorities will have to set up new youth offending teams, including education and social services representatives, to oversee the support and supervision of young offenders.

Mr Straw's audience of magistrates, probation officers, social workers and police officers mostly welcomed the proposals. But some entered reservations about the plan to introduce curfews ("Are we meant to run a cr che?" asked one police officer privately, referring to the widespread difficulty of locating the parents of children found in the streets.) And six leading academic lawyers have said the Home Secretary's Crime and Disorder Bill will create a new breed of "outcasts and outlaws" and breach European Human Rights legislation.

In a paper published by the Howard League for Penal Reform, the six professors say the plans to deal with anti-social behaviour and neighbourhood disorder are so sweeping they would cover everything from playing music too late to failing to control noisy children.


"Lessons were carefully planned and prepared I knowledge and understanding of the subjects taught was consistently satisfactory and often very good or excellent."

These words do not come from an unusually good Office for Standards in Education school report but are a glowing account of Gloucestershire police's schools programme. The language is familiar because the inspection was carried out by an OFSTED-accredited team - Gloucestershire Quality Assurance Consultancy - using OFSTED criteria.

It found that Gloucestershire police who worked with schools had many of the qualities which Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, would applaud. They were "excellent communicators who vary their style to suit the age and ability of pupils, respond sensitively to pupils' contributions, use humour to good effect" and "deal with distractions in a non-threatening way".

The four officers in the Schools Involvement Unit go into all of Gloucestershire's 42 secondaries and are responsible for drug education in primaries (most of the work in primaries is the responsibility of the local community beat officer).

"Our aim," says PC Steve Grimsley, who leads the team, "is to see every young person in secondary education once a year." He says having all four officers in the unit at police headquarters is an advantage as they can go out and "hit" a whole school together.

The programme covers the law, good citizenship, the rights and responsibilities of individuals and personal and community safety. Schools can select what suits their personal and social education programme.

But the SIU officers are also busy with out-of-school activities such as parents' evenings and teacher training. And they do a great deal of work with pupils who are either at risk of exclusion from schools or, once excluded, are following a programme of home tuition.

They work closely with the county's education and social support team, set up three years ago to try to keep more pupils in school. Pupils identified as in danger of being excluded follow a programme within their school, including a weekly visit by police officers.

Success so far with some 400 pupils in Gloucester and the surrounding area has been striking. Three out of four pupils have stayed in mainstream education rather than being excluded and many others have stayed in school longer than they would otherwise have done.

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