Cautions for young are likely to remain: Youth crime policy 'limits reoffending'

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The Independent Online
Government policy on the treat ment of young offenders is unlikely to change radically, despite backbench protests that children are getting away with 'just a ticking off'.

This week's stories of a gang of 15- year-olds who stole pounds 20,000-worth of mountain bikes, and a nine-year-old who caused the death of a pensioner by blocking his chimney, brought renewed calls for tougher measures to deal with juvenile crime.

In 1991, 79 per cent of known offenders under 17 were dealt with by police caution; the figure rises to over 90 per cent for children aged 10-13.

Caution is widely seen as the most effective method of dealing with juvenile criminals: less than 15 per cent offend again within two years. Children who go through the judicial process are much more likely to re-offend.

Cautions are administered in front of a parent or guardian. The offender has to have admitted the crime and show an understanding of the meaning of the caution.

A 1990 Home Office circular to the police encouraged the use of cautions, saying 'cautioning is recognised as an increasingly important way of keeping offenders out of the courts and in many circumstances reducing the risk that they will re-offend'.

The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee issued a report on juvenile offenders last month. It broadly accepted the evidence that cautioning was a policy that worked, but the committee recommended that the Crown Prosecution Service issue guidelines that children should not be allowed more than two cautions.

It heard evidence from the Police Superintendents' Association that 'persistent cautioning has devalued the very nature of cautioning and it has reached the stage now where it is almost a joke among certain groups of young offenders'.

However, it is thought that persistent offenders make up only a very small proportion of all juvenile offenders.

The Home Office is preparing legislation for the autumn that will address the idea of 'secure training orders' for persistent offenders aged 12- 15, announced in March by the then Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke.