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Charlotte Reynolds questions Jack Straw's obsession with young offenders

Jack the nipper?

Have you been attacked by a gun-toting 10-year old recently? Perhaps you have been burgled by a gang of 11-year olds? Driven off the road by a bunch of 12-year old joy-riders? No? Maybe it is just a matter of time. On the basis of the overblown media coverage of juvenile crime, one could be forgiven for looking suspiciously at what little Billy next door is doing with his toy gun, or imagining that there is a potential serial killer in every classroom.

And if the media is obsessed, then Jack Straw is seriously in need of some therapy. In the past six months, the home secretary has offered us such a proliferation of schemes and proposals to deal with the problem of juvenile crime that one begins to wonder whether the poor man is getting any sleep at all. From mentor schemes and a campaign to tackle truancy, to urging GPs to inform on young offenders, Jack Straw seems to have every angle covered. His Crime and Disorder Bill, published in November, contains a list of proposals to deal with youth crime the like of which has never before been seen. And there are more to come in Straw's next law'n'order bill.

The home secretary, however, is not the only one becoming flustered about young offenders. Even those who are critical of the toughest proposals emphasise the scale of the problem and the need to do something about it. NCH Action for Children, for instance, one of the largest voluntary organisations working with young offenders in the community, states that 'The public is rightly concerned about juvenile crime. 10-17 year olds commit seven million offences a year'.

In fact official statistics show that total recorded crime fell to 4.8 million offences last year, so it is baffling how young offenders could have committed seven million. When an organisation which professes to help young offenders exaggerates the problem of juvenile crime to such an extent, it is easy to see why the public is becoming so paranoid.

But before you start clinging on to your handbag every time you walk past a pushchair, it is worth examining the true extent of the problem. Crime statistics must always be approached with caution, but they are at least a good indicator of the relative configuration of crime, if not of the overall magnitude.

In 1995, the total number of offences for which a person was found guilty or cautioned was just under one million. Of these, 179 300 were committed by persons aged 10-17 and 37 300 by persons aged 10-13. This means that 10-13 year olds were responsible for under four per cent of crime in 1995. If the thought of 37 000 knife-wielding schoolchildren running riot appears a little far-fetched, it is probably because the vast majority were crimes against property. Just 3000 offences committed by 10-13 year olds involved violence. In other words, of the total crime committed in 1995, 0.3 per cent of it was violent crime committed by 10-13 year olds.

When one considers the particular offences which cause most panic, such as street robbery and violent offences, it is clear that the emphasis placed upon youth crime vastly outweighs the scale of the problem. Of course, we could speculate about the problem of unrecorded crime, but attempts to do so usually result in data based upon nothing more than fear.

The current focus on young offenders also seems exaggerated when placed in historical context. Aside from the fact that little boys in Victorian England were far worse than little boys today, without causing the same level of panic, in recent times there is evidence that juvenile crime has actually been on the decrease. Between 1981 and 1995, the number of offences for which 10-17 year olds were cautioned or convicted fell by about 35 per cent (from 272 900 to 179 300) and crime committed by 10-13 year olds was down by nearly 50 per cent (from 70 000 to 37 300). So why is everybody getting so concerned about it now?

There is clearly no correlation between the level of juvenile crime and the degree of public concern about it. If the answer cannot be located in the sphere of youth justice itself, then the preoccupation with it must tell us something more about the attitude of adults today.

Adult society is suffering a loss of faith in itself and its future. As the most visible symbols of that future, children have become the focus of many social insecurities. Teachers have become afraid to teach; parents have become afraid to parent; adults have become afraid to act like grown-ups.

As our society becomes increasingly afraid of its own children, the role of youth justice is changing drastically. Youth crime has become not just a small part of the criminal justice system, but an overblown obsession of government policy and public/media debate.

In effect, the criminal law is being turned into a blunt instrument to compensate for society's inability to manage basic human relations. Where once there was adult authority and a largely informal system of discipline in the family, the school and the community, now it seems that we think we need more and more laws and orders and curfews and courts to cope with the very young. And what kind of example is that to set the next generation?

Clause 8 Parenting orders
Clause 11 Child safety orders (for under 10s)
Clause 14 Local child curfew schemes (for under 10s)
Clause 27 Abolition of rebuttable presumption that a child is doli incapax (incapable of evil)
Clause 30 Youth offending teams
Clause 31 Youth justice plans
Clause 32 The Youth Justice Board
Clause 52 Reprimands and warnings (replacing cautioning)
Clause 54 Reparation orders
Clause 56 Action plan orders
Clause 58 Supervision orders
Clause 60 Detention and training orders
Clause 81 Remands and committals
Reproduced from LM issue 109, April 1998

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