The Home Office is planning an 'options paper' for the spring, which is expected to include a new punishment for 12 to 15-year- olds which would involve sending them to a secure, 'borstal-type' home. But leading lawyers, probation officers and former Home Office officials urged instead that funds be diverted to community- based and welfare projects.
Launching a campaign for new ways to deal with young offenders as crime levels continue to soar, they said that imprisonment and detention had failed to stop re-offending - it was a costly method of making bad people worse.
Their aims may receive unexpected support from the Treasury. It is said to have told Home Office officials that there will not be any money for new secure units for at least three years.
At the heart of the campaign is a new book by Roger Graef, the writer and broadcaster, who has spent the past two years observing and interviewing a group of persistent young offenders to try to discover what might divert them from crime and often violence. Its publication comes as the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee starts examining the issue.
Mr Graef concludes that they were all damaged young people. 'The common demand is for jobs and training and a better arrangement for the dole. It makes common sense: if we want them to give up activities which provide them with excitement, cash, respect from their peers and the means to acquire the material things which our culture values, we must do more than punish them . . . We want them to believe in the system and join it at the bottom with the promise of greater rewards on the way up. But they have no access to the ladder at all.' He said agencies who help ex-offenders were struggling for cash and youth training was being cut back.
Rather than throw money at the consequences of crime, there was a need to attack the roots of criminality - for example, by providing greater support for families in difficulties and tackling domestic violence.
The campaign was launched by Helena Kennedy QC, the barrister, broadcaster and author, David Faulkner, the former Home Office official behind the new Criminal Justice Bill, aimed at diverting petty offenders from jail, and Mary Tuck, the former head of Home Office research.
Experts, probation officers and reformers, including the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, accept that detention is needed for a few young offenders, but argue that sufficient secure local authority places are available.
Harry Fletcher, of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: 'The real answer must be to include all agencies in targeting help for vulnerable families and reserving custody for only the most serious of offenders.'
Living Dangerously. Young Offenders in Their Own Words; Roger Graef; Harper Collins; pounds 14.99.
A series of interviews with five young offenders begins on Radio 4 on 10 January at 8.30pm.Reuse content