New powers to lock up young offenders

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The Independent Online
Plans for a further crackdown on teenage tearaways were announced yesterday. Jason Bennetto, Crime Correspondent, on a Home Office package aimed at faster youth justice.

Persistent child offenders as young as 12 can be locked up by courts while waiting for their cases to be heard, under measures revealed yesterday by the Home Office.

The move to give magistrates greater powers to detain young people on remand follows of cases involving youths, such as the so-called ``rat boy'', who have committed dozens of crimes with impunity.

Solicitors, probation officers, and the police could also face fines for failing to meet the new time limits for dealing with young offenders in court.

The package of measures, disclosed by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, seeks to speed up youth justice and to nip in the bud offending among the very young before they become serious criminals.

One area of concern is the courts and police inability to deal with criminals aged under 15. At present only social service directors can have offenders placed in secure local authority accommodation while they await their case in the youth court.

The forthcoming Crime and Disorder Bill will contain provisions to allow magistrates to lock up persistent offenders - defined as anyone who has been convicted on three occasions and faces a forth charge within three years of the last offence - until the case is dealt with.

This provision is only expected to affect a small number of youngsters, but an extra 170 places have been made available to increase the number of places in secure accommodation in England and Wales to 400.

Vulnerable teenagers aged 15 and 16, some of whom are currently held on remand in jails, will also be kept in the local authority units in future. However, Labour's plans to ensure that no 15- and 16-year-olds on remand are kept in prison or young offenders' institutions appear to have been shelved because of cost.

The Home Secretary was also announcing a ``fast track'' system to deal with persistent young offenders.

Time limits to reduce delays for all young offenders are to be introduced. Courts will be expected to halve the current average of four and a half months for a young person who commits an offence to be sentenced. Anyone who fails to meet the set time limits will face fines, the rate of which has yet to be decided. This system could be extended to adult courts.

But the proposals drew fire from probation officers who argued that many of the current delays were due to underfunding.