FOR THE past month, civil servants have been trying to calm Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary. Juvenile crime was not exploding, they told him. It had fallen by a third in the past decade. His plan for new approved schools for 12- to 15-year-olds was, therefore, unnecessary; dangerous children could in any case already be sent to secure local authority homes.

But last week Mr Clarke, dismissing the civil servants' reservations, promised new secure approved schools that would be 'much more than prisons'. They would be 'primary schools in citizenship' for boys who were 'really persistent, nasty little juvenile offenders'.

Mr Clarke is returning to ideas on the treatment of children that were first developed 150 years ago. They were provoked not by the celebrated Victorian conscience but by the refusal of the Australian colonies to accept any more transported criminals. Parliament had to find another way of removing them from society. New prisons were built for adults. But, argued Mary Carpenter, the Victorian educationist, children should be kept away from the corrupting influence of grown-up criminals.

She and other campaigners wanted reformatories which, like Mr Clarke's secure homes, would be under private management and would have an ostensibly liberal purpose. A 'wild and hitherto uncurbed boy' would be taught, 'almost without knowing it, that there is a bound which he must not pass'.

By the beginning of the 20th century, 21,000 were incarcerated. But the reformatories were not a success. The private owners kept children in for as long as possible and forgot about expensive reforms. At the end of Mrs Carpenter's life, disillusion had set in. 'We should not sever the family ties of all these young people or place the hand of the policeman on so many of the rising generation,' she said.

Borstals, for older children aged 16 to 21, got an equally bad press. In the 1920s, however, a former social worker, Alexander Paterson, became prison commissioner and introduced a determined attempt at rehabilitation. He turned borstals into imitations of public schools. Officers were taken out of uniform, housemasters and matrons were appointed. Boys were released when they showed they could lead law-abiding lives.

Two strands of penal thought had thus been tried by the 1930s. Mary Carpenter wanted to protect children by keeping them away from the corrupting influence of adult prisons and degenerate parents. Neither lasted. Approved schools (the descendants of the reformatories) were abolished in 1969, 65 per cent of those with one conviction re-offended on release, the Home Office found. Borstals went in 1982, not because they were proven failures but because their enthusiastic Baden-Powell ethos seemed out of place in the 1970s.

There was a third way of dealing with criminals: to imprison juveniles or birch them without worrying whether the punishments made them better people. The history of both practices contradicts those who believe that 1960s trendies undermined law and order.

Birchings fell from a peak of 5,210 in 1917 to 48 in 1938 because magistrates refused to order it. The abolition of the birch in the 1948 Criminal Justice Act simply rubber-stamped what the courts had already decided.

Imprisonment of juveniles, on the other hand, soared after the 1960s. By 1981, the number of boys aged 14 to 21 who were in detention had reached 28,000, a post-war high. In 1979, William Whitelaw, the then Home Secretary, added to the numbers by introducing 'short, sharp, shock' camps where boys were put through a quasi-military square-bashing course. Mass imprisonment in the shock camps, the young offender institutions - in effect, youth prisons - which succeeded borstals, and local authority secure units was, however, a failure as the soaring crime rates of the 1980s showed.

In a U-turn, the consequences of which are only now sinking in, the Conservative Government agreed with its radical critics that prisons were universities of crime which taught young offenders only how to be better criminals.

Its 1982 Criminal Justice Act required the courts to show that there was a need to send a young offender to prison - a device which virtually halved the proportion of under-21-year-olds jailed between 1985 and 1990.

Andrew Rutherford, chairman of the Howard League for Penal Reform, summed up last week how the brutal conditions and jail suicides had turned prison reformers into prison abolitionists. 'Prison is just the wrong setting for dealing with young people,' he said. 'Whatever ideals you have they end up as centres for thuggery and buggery.' But the view of 1980s reformers that institutions did not and could not work is now coming under attack because it too has failed to answer the question of how crime can be cut.

Rehabilitation is coming back into fashion. The Home Office is enthusiastic about schemes, imported from Canada and the United States, for teaching offenders social skills outside custody.

In the jails, Judge Stephen Tumim, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, has become increasingly critical of what he described as the 'Howard League approach of giving up on the idea that prisons can be made better'. He concentrates his energies on making young offender institutions help teenagers 'lead law-abiding lives'. Last year Joe Pilling, the then director general of the Prison Service, followed Tumim's ideas and called for a revival of the idealism which had surrounded borstals.

At first sight, Mr Clarke, with his proposal for secure schools that teach citizenship, looks like a convert to the new ideas. Senior Home Office policy-makers are not so sure. They point out that Mr Pilling, the supporter of rehabilitation, was replaced by Mr Clarke last year, after just two years in his job, by a businessman with no experience of prisons whose brief is to privatise rather than reform the jails.

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