Trusting young people and enabling them to develop self-confidence and a sense of responsibility is one of the most cost-effective and efficient ways of reducing juvenile delinquency and crime, youth and judicial policy-makers heard this week.
Home Office crime statistics give a mixed picture - burglaries, theft and car crime have dropped in the past five years; violent crimes have slightly increased. However, they clearly show that the critical time to nip crime in the bud is in the teenage years, a National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (NACRO) conference in Birmingham was told.
The number of people under the age of 21 found guilty or cautioned for serious, indictable offences, has fallen from 53 per cent of the total figure 10 years ago to 43 per cent today, but the statistics consistently show that the peak age for offending is between 13 and 18.
Targeting resources at this age group through youth work and other measures is both cheaper and more effective than tackling the problem when it is too late - in the criminal justice system, NACRO director Vivien Stern said.
She told the conference, designed to give young people's perspectives on reducing youth crime, that independent research for the Prince's Trust by consultants Coopers and Lybrand found strong evidence to suggest a link between youth work and crime prevention.
"We need a programme of investment in youth - I'm not talking about billions of pounds, but an approach that regards them as what they are - our future, the people in whom we must invest to enable them to cope with the challenges of the enormous changes the world is undergoing," Ms Stern said.
It was essential to see young people as a precious resource and to resist media stereotypes. Figures from across Europe show that Britain actually suffers relatively low levels of juvenile crime.
Home Office statistician Gordon Barclay told the conference that there were difficulties in interpreting contradictory figures. Recorded crime has been steadily increasing at around 5 per cent a year throughout this century, but levels of violent crime remained low, around 6 per cent. But analysis of types of offence, clear-up rates and judicial cases strongly suggested that resources were best spent on prevention than court cures. "Once somebody reaches 18 they are moving out of the likelihood of committing a crime, which raises the importance in youth work of getting involved at the earlier stage," he said.
Young people who attended the conference agreed that having something to do and somewhere to go was crucial in steering their age group clear of trouble.
Amanda, a 14-year-old who is involved in one NACRO youth project on the New Park Village council estate in Wolverhampton, said in a workshop session that teenagers needed to feel they were trusted and respected and had places where they could talk about and do things that interested them.
"Young people are really active - we need places where we can enjoy our activities. Many people don't treat us very well - they have no confidence in us and don't trust us. We need that."
Amanda and her friends have been developing an anti-drugs song and dance with the help of Wolverhampton soul group Smooth and Deadly, which performed a rap dance routine at the conference .
Policy recommendations arising from the conference - including the need to respond to young people's wishes and provide broadly-based projects which don't segregate young offenders or those at risk of offending - will be published by NACRO early next year.
The report will also include the results of a year-long survey by the charity into how young people involved in its crime reduction projects think crime should be tackled.