Abolition of automatic anonymity for the under-18s could be unveiled at this autumn's Tory party conference by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary. The initiative would be designed to humiliate young tearaways and thugs and shame their parents into taking more responsibility, but would be a radical departure from the 60-year-old rule that juveniles should not be named, except in exceptional circumstances, such as where anonymity would cause the offender an injustice.
Paul Cavadino, chairman of the Penal Affairs Consortium, the umbrella group for penal organisations, said: "The reason why the names of juvenile offenders are not normally published is that it can seriously hinder their future rehabilitation. This is as true now as it was when the rule was introduced in 1933.
"If the Government scraps the rule, it will be giving a knee-jerk punitive response priority over the prospect of rehabilitating young offenders."
But some party strategists hope, however forlornly, that the threat of public exposure in cases of serious offences could force parents to take a hand in reforming teenage behaviour. This would put a hard-core of young offenders on a par with the handful of children who appear at the Crown Court for the gravest offences.
Penal reform groups will argue strongly, however, that the public branding of young criminals at an early age will encourage many that they have nothing to gain by trying to reform. Jack Straw, Labour's home affairs spokesman, has already published proposals to give youth courts the power to pass a new sentence of naming offenders, but this would only apply to 16- to 18-year-olds. A party spokesman said: "There are a number of serious questions about the under-16s. For most young people, the effect of coming into contact with the criminal justice system for the first time is a deterrent."
Labour is sympathetic to the complaint that hardened young offenders cock a snoop at the system and treat it as a joke, but insists the root of the problem is the huge delays in bringing them to justice.
It has called for fast-track court processing for persistent offenders, the formalising of the cautioning system so that offenders are given a clear "final warning", and a sentencing process based on the Scottish scheme. Such a scheme would involve an inquiry by magistrates, welfare workers, teachers and other community representatives to devise the best sentence for a particular offender. It would come into play immediately a guilty plea is entered, whereas the current adversarial court system encourages offenders to plead not guilty, delaying decisions about their treatment.