Specialist task force to target youth crime

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A specialist task force to help tackle juvenile crime is being set up by the Government, it was announced yesterday.

The 12-strong team, which will include experts from social services, the police and the Audit Commission, will advise the Home Secretary on future policy and help draft new laws.

In his first major public speech since he became Home Secretary, Jack Straw also yesterday outlined plans for a major overhaul of the Crown Prosecution Service and repeated his pledge to deal with youth crime. This included forcing some young offenders to do community work and undergo extra education (such as Saturday morning schools), and random drug testing of some burglars and robbers.

Speaking at the Police Federation's annual conference in Blackpool, Mr Straw revealed details of his new Youth Justice Task Force, which is expected to be set up within a few weeks. The unit will comprise invited representatives from organisations including the probation service, the Home Office, the Department of Health, social services, courts, police, and the Audit Commission, the public spending watchdog.

The task force will help Mr Straw draw up the details of the forthcoming Crime and Disorder Bill, and advise on future policy and initiatives in dealing with youth crime.

The decision to bring in expert help emphasises the importance Mr Straw is placing on reducing juvenile offending. "The new task force will represent a significant change of approach," he said. "Too often, in recent years, we have seen change by diktat. I want change based on consent, openness and partnership. I want to shed some much needed light on the workings of the youth justice."

He added: "It will act as the engine of change to drive the much-needed reforms of the youth justice system - a system which is currently slow and ineffective and which wastes up to pounds 1bn of taxpayers' money every year."

On the issue of the CPS, Mr Straw said that the Attorney-General would shortly announce that the organisation was being split into 42 areas - one for each police area with a joint operation for London. A chief Crown prosecutor would be appointed for each area and would take over responsibility from the police of keeping victims informed of the progress of cases.

Mr Straw said there would also be a review of the whole of the CPS to discover whether failings in the organisation were responsible for the fall in the number of prosecutions.

To a warm applause he outlined other measures to deal with young troublemakers. These include "action plan orders" to force juvenile offenders to change their attitudes and behaviour. In the worst cases teenagers would be given a timetable of events they must follow, which could include carrying out community work or reparation for the victim and extra education, he said.

The Crime and Disorder Bill will also include a new drug treatment and testing order under which offenders whose crimes are connected to their addiction will have to undergo random tests. If the criminals, who could be burglars or robbers stealing to fund their habit, are found to be positive, they will be taken off their treatment programmes and returned to court for sentencing.

Also speaking at the conference Fred Broughton, chairman of the Police Federation, called for more money to pay for extra officers on the beat. He said the police service had been "stripped of excess fat".