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Youth crime getting better - and worse

Two Home Office reports out this month give conflicting views, says Jon Slater.

WE have become used to hearing that today's generation of young people is out of control. Headlines highlight teenagers on the rampage, seemingly out of reach of the not-so-long arm of the law. Children, we are told, have never been so badly behaved.

Teachers experience this first hand. A recent survey for the Professional Association of Teachers found that almost half of those questioned had suffered a physical or verbal attack at work during the past year - the vast majority by pupils.

But are things really so bad? During the past month, two Home Office reports have painted conflicting pictures of criminal activity among young people.

The 19989 Youth Lifestyles Survey found that almost half of 12 to 30-year olds would admit to committing at least one crime at some point in their lives.

While the survey found that the group most likely to commit crime is men aged 18-21, both boys and, less commonly, girls under 16 were involved in a range of criminal activities.

On average, boys commit their first crime at 13-and-a-half years old, six months earlier than girls. Common crimes ranged from fighting (mainly boys) to shoplifting (girls) and criminal damage (both).

For Home Secretary Jack Straw it was a welcome opportunity to justify his policies after one of his flagship detention centres was criticised by inspectors. "This survey demonstrates why the Government was right to bring forward radical changes to the youth justice system," he said. "By making our courts more effective and by preventing offending and re-offending, we ar building safer communities."

But just as the evidence of moral decline in young people seemed incontrovertible, a second Home Office study was published showing that overall crime is down.

The British Crime Survey, widely recognised as the most accurate measure of the extent of criminal activity in England and Wales (confusingly, Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own surveys) found that, overall, crime rates are falling. It showed that the total number of crimes had fallen by 10 per cent since 1997, with particularly big drops in the number of burglaries and vehicle thefts.

The survey does show an increase in violent crime and the authors suggest that is almost entirely as a result of an increase in attacks on and by 16-year-olds. Indeed, without the increase in school-age crime, robberies would have increased by only 2 per cent instead of 14 per cent and the number of muggings would have fallen rather than risen.

But they argue that in many cases this is because incidents are being viewed more seriously. "Closer examination of robbery incidents revealed that there were a few instances where school-age respondents had reported multiple incidents of robbery. Although they meet the criterion for robbery, they might be viewed as nearer to bullying incidents. These and other incidents involving school-age respondents had a marked impact on estimated changes in violence victimisation rates," the report said.

The report does not make entirely comfortable reading for ministers. According to the BCS, changes in fashion rather than a rise in detention rates are the most likely cause of the fall in crime.

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