BOOK REVIEW / Getting an education at Sherborne: 'Living Dangerously: Young Offenders in Their Own Words' - Roger Graef: HarperCollins, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
THEY'RE all the same, these little criminals. Faceless, clueless, helpless, they do a little mugging, a little taking and driving away, and once in a while a little term inside. Do they change inside? Come on. They're back on your street a year later with the tongues flapping out of their trainers, kicking cans, setting off car alarms.

Roger Graef probably heard this a fair bit when he researched Police, his acclaimed television series, and Talking Blues, his book on the force. Did the cops help these offenders? Not their job. Did the courts help them? Not theirs. It is telling, he notes, that a greater number of intelligent minds are spent dealing with the sentencing of these young people than on their rehabilitation.

To understand the problem (and its scale - Graef reports that one in three British men will have been convicted of a non-motoring criminal offence by the time they're 30), you have to talk at length to the offenders themselves, and it is Graef's interviews that make up the core of this book.

We meet Johnnie, 20, who likes nicking wallets from jackets and playing the fruit machines on the South coast; Johnnie wants to be an office junior and earn pounds 90 a week. We hear from Stan, who trades in dodgy pounds 20 notes, makes lamps in woodwork, and 'needs' pounds 200 a week to stop offending. And then there's Winston, 19, soft-spoken, a third-rate burglar who thinks the world is coming to an end and fears the worst for his nine-year-old nephew, already involved in crime. These blokes are typical: small-timers doing crimes out of need, but also for adrenalin and fun.

We meet them at Sherborne House, a model intensive day-centre, the showcase for the inner London probation service. With the short sharp shock discredited, and research suggesting that most judges believe that prison neither deters nor reforms, this kind of place is perceived as the future: lots of self-analysis and group discussion, sailing trips and go-karting, and professionals who say things like 'he's a Rolls- Royce engine not attached to anything' trying to help lads distinguish right from wrong.

Graef went back to talk to his subjects a year after their 10-week probationary course, to find that only a little had changed. Most of them still stole, but they thought about the consequences for a while; or they stole and no longer went joyriding.

This is a rewarding read, honest and brutal with glints of optimism. A solution? Nothing outrageous, Graef concludes: more jobs, better training, more work with families in an attempt to tackle the roots of criminality. Courses like Sherborne House seem a good start, but then you listen to Mark, and it's too little, too late: 'It seems that all they were doing was putting questions to us and waiting for answers. If people have been going out doing burglaries and stuff since they were 12, you can't change them. I mean, people were getting nicked while they were at Sherborne House . . .' Shame. Clever bloke.

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