A study by the Audit Commission states that "less is done now than a decade ago to address offending by young people". Only 3 per cent of the estimated 7 million offences committed by those aged 10 to 17 each year result in arrests and action by the criminal justice system, it says. It adds that there is little or no assessment of whether schemes to prevent offending actually work.
The overall impression obtained by the commission in a 18-month inquiry is of a youth justice system in an expensive mess with almost no agreed national strategies and with local authorities acting as an emergency service rather than a preventive one.
Labour, penal affairs groups, and the probation services yesterday seized upon the report as evidence that the current government strategy was failing. It is a blow to the Tories in the run-up to the election, when law and order, particularly youth crime, is likely to be a key issue.
The commission recommends a radical shift of resources from "processing" young offenders through the courts to tackling their behaviour and its causes. But the Home Office yesterday rejected suggestions by the commission to give local authorities a greater role in dealing with juvenile criminals.
The police in England and Wales spend about pounds 660m a year on juvenile crime, much of it on identifying around 150,000 offenders. Three out of five 10- to 17-year-olds are usually just cautioned. Once a young offender is detained, a police officer completes around 40 forms. It cost another pounds 2,500 to achieve a prosecution, in a process which typically takes four months from arrest to sentence and an average four appearances before court.
But despite the time and money expended, half of those proceeded against effectively faced no real sanction - with their cases being discontinued, dismissed or ending in a discharge, the report says.
It points out that although there are programmes designed to prevent offending they are not assessed regularly, "so there is no opportunity to learn from experience". The report recommends diverting around one- fifth of young offenders - those involved in the less serious crimes - into "caution plus" programmes, saving pounds 40m annually on court costs.
The Northamptonshire Diversion Unit is highlighted as a successful example of such a programme, which involves a police caution backed up by compensation for victims and action to address offending behaviour. There are similar schemes in the Netherlands.
The commission concludes: "The current system for dealing with youth crime is inefficient and expensive, while little is being done to deal effectively with juvenile nuisance."
Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "As this report shows the current youth justice system is an extraordinary shambles. Transforming it is a top priority for Labour."
But David Maclean, the Home Office minister, argued that action was being taken to speed up courts and deal with school indiscipline.
Misspent Youth: Young people and crime; Audit Commission Publications, Bookpoint Ltd, 39 Milton Park, Abingdon OX14 4TD; pounds 20
The commission's main points
Youth crime costs public services pounds 1bn. Needs an overhaul.
System is expensive, slow and inefficient.
Only 3 per cent of estimated 7 million crimes by juveniles each year result in arrest and court action.
"Less is done now than a decade ago to address offending by young people," says the study.
Anti-offending programmes should be assessed. More intensive supervision for persistent offenders needed.
Greater co-ordination in local authorities and central government needed.Reuse content