The leader of a teenage gang responsible for 445 offences since April has been placed in custody after Nottinghamshire police and social workers spent nearly a year trying to stem a wave of theft and vandalism.
Seven boys, now aged between 12 and 15, have operated as a gang, based since November in a social services home in Mansfield.
The boys have been arrested 419 times, but a shortage of secure accommodation and government guidelines on treatment of children in care have combined to leave them free to resume offending.
Superintendent Alan Capps, commander of Mansfield police division, yesterday told the police authority that "revolving door justice" had brought "untold pain to the community" and danger to his officers.
"On many occasions, my officers have detained the juveniles prior to committing crime, and taken them back to the children's home," Supt Capps said.
"They take them to the front door and, because social services are not empowered to physically detain the offenders, the children run out of the back door and go on further criminal rampage.
"In one such 12-hour period members of the gang committed 14 separate serious offences of burglary, car theft and illegal drug possession."
The boys knew they were unlikely to be locked up by the courts until they reached their 15th birthdays. They often drove dangerously in stolen cars, laughing at police efforts to stop them, Supt Capps said.
Gwilym Griffith, assistant director of Nottinghamshire social services, said recidivist juvenile crime was becoming common across Britain. Some social workers now despaired of turning children away from crime, and saw their role increasingly as one of restraint.
Gang members were in care because of their criminal behaviour or truancy, Mr Griffith said. Two had spent terms in secure accommodation but rules in children's homes forbade physical force unless a young person was in imminent danger.
"Department of Health guidelines need changing so that staff can physically restrain kids from leaving the building." But he said social workers were reluctant to change substantially the regime in homes because of abuse endured by children subjected to "pin-down" methods in homes in Staffordshire.
Only when a child under 15 persistently offends, or commits a serious crime, can magistrates send him into custody.
Last week, the gang ringleader burgled and set fire to a clothes shop causing damage estimated at pounds 9,000. Magistrates agreed to send him to a secure unit, but it took four days before social workers found a vacant place at a centre in Leeds.
Mr Capps said: "This is not a political statement. It is a message to highlight the impact that juvenile crime has on the community, and the workload faced by investigating officers.
"I accept that many people have stated that imprisonment does not reform offenders, but imprisonment does give respite to the victims of crime, and I am faced in Mansfield with many shopkeepers whose insurance companies will now not provide them with cover because of the number of claims being made."Reuse content