Demonised: We lock them up. We give them Asbos. But is our fear of kids making them worse?

Ordinary children are being labelled as criminals unfairly because the crackdown on yob culture has gone too far. Who says so? Astonishingly, it's the Government's own youth justice tsar. Sophie Goodchild reports
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The noise of breaking glass - a sound familiar to generations of families as children play with balls in the street - alerted the neighbour to the fate that had just befallen his greenhouse.

Understandably furious, he sought out the miscreant who had smashed the glass. It turned out to be his neighbour's son. The boy apologised after confessing to his parents, who told him his pocket money would be docked until he had made good the damage. Satisfied that justice had been done, the neighbour was happy to accept the apology and the money to replace the glass.

Yet what happened next vividly underscores the crisis in policing, justice and the way we deal with unruly children. Alerted to the offence before the neighbours had sorted out the dispute, the police arrived. Under existing law, they were obliged to arrest the child and take him to court. He faced a fine or the prospect of an anti-social behaviour order (Asbo) banning him for playing with a ball in his garden. In short, the boy was guaranteed a criminal record.

It is cases such as this that deeply trouble Professor Rod Morgan, the government-appointed youth justice "tsar" responsible for problem children. In an exclusive interview with The Independent on Sunday, Professor Morgan says he believes these measures are responsible for "demonising" a whole section of British youth.

He knows all about out-of-control youths and badly behaved teenagers. There were times in his childhood when his parents would have been justified in marching him to the local police station for a ticking-off.

Over the past decade, the number of children labelled "anti-social" and dealt with by the criminal justice system has stayed constant at around 200,000 a year, despite reports that youth crime is on the rise.

But there has been a dramatic increase in the proportion of those who end up in court - from a third to around a half. And nearly half of Asbos - the scheme introduced in 1999 as part of Tony Blair's respect agenda - handed out are given to children, although ministers' original pledge was that they should only be used in exceptional circumstances for under-18s.

There is no time limit on an Asbo, although the average is four years. In some cases, children as young as 13 are given 10-year Asbos, which Professor Morgan says they are likely to breach. The Home Office has agreed to review the orders after a year, but the youth crime adviser wants this to happen after six months.

Professor Morgan says there are several reasons for this worrying "demonisation" of children and teenagers who are acting no differently from those throughout history. He believes schoolteachers feel disempowered and fear the reaction of parents if they discipline pupils. Child arrests have also risen because police no longer have the discretion just to hand out a warning if a crime has been committed.

In their defence, police argue that they are increasingly getting called out to homes by parents who want them to deal with out-of-control children with a slap on the wrist, not realising the police may have to make an arrest.

"We are sucking into the criminal justice system behaviour which should be capable, and used to be capable, of being dealt with by informal, non-criminal means," the professor says.

The Government's chief adviser on youth crime is eager to point out that he is by no means "soft" on the issue of children making the lives of law-abiding people a misery. But after two years as chairman of the Youth Justice Board (YJB), where his job involves finding new ways of tackling youth crime, he knows that just because an 11-year-old hangs out on a street corner in a hooded top, it does not mean they are out to rob you. "There are adverse consequences of fixing a mark of Cain to a child's forehead," explains Professor Morgan, who was formerly Chief Inspector of Probation. "We should not forget the lessons of the 1960s and 70s of the labelling effect. The argument is that if you give a dog a bad name then the dog may live up to the bad name."

He does not object to the use of measures such as curfews and Asbos. What he does object to is the lack of common sense.

Child-welfare experts and children's charities agree with Professor Morgan that society has become "obsessed" with criminalising young people.

Martin Narey, chief executive of Barnardo's, says he is dismayed that increasing numbers of young offenders are ending up in court despite evidence that early cautions and warnings are more effective. "The teenagers we 'despair' of today will, in due course despair of the children being born in future decades," says Mr Narey, the former head of the Prison Service. "The difference is that we have over-reacted and we hear children routinely referred to as 'yobs' or being 'feral'."

For the first time, magistrates say they are having to deal with young offenders whose low level "crimes" have been committed in the home, a trend which they blame on parents over-reacting and calling the police, who are then forced to arrest.

John Fassenfel, chair of the Magistrates' Association youth courts committee, also warns that more children than ever are being prosecuted. One case that he had to deal with recently was that of a 14-year-old girl who broke a window frame in a care home. Staff had locked her in a room and the girl, who suffers from an attention disorder, panicked.

"I've talked to child psychologists about this and the problem is it makes them feel wanted if they get even negative attention, and this can make their behaviour worse," says Mr Fassenfel. "We definitely prosecute more readily than we used to. I think we are a more punitive society. If people trip over a flagstone it goes to court."

Bob Reitemeier, chief executive of the Children's Society, says the huge gap in understanding between adults and children has led to a greatly increased fear of young people, and to many being wrongly labelled as criminals.

"Older people especially are very fearful of youths and it's something we have to address as a society. We are quite happy to point out all the failures of children and when there are problem behaviours we are quite happy to condemn them."

As a part-time resident of London, Professor Morgan reveals that even he finds gangs of children intimidating. But what concerns him is that the hysteria over "yobs" and "feral children" has led to record numbers of children being targeted by the police for behaviour which in the past would have just earned them a reprimand.

"When I was a kid there were other authority figures around in uniform - ticket collectors, park keepers - [who] told you off, and the problem today is there are not people who are prepared to exercise authority - and some reluctance even in schools."

In one case this month, a judge criticised prosecutors for bringing charges against a 10-year-old who used racist taunts against a fellow pupil in the playground. Professor Morgan says children calling each other offensive names is a "serious" matter but it could be dealt with by teachers. "We shouldn't move back to the bad old days where all you get is a bit of fingerwagging ... but that may be all that is necessary if you are a child [with] caring parents who are anxious to maintain control."

In his view, the racist taunt case at Salford Youth Court, which was eventually sent back to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) by Judge Jonathan Finestein, was the "tip of the iceberg".

The YJB was heavily rapped over its handling of the case of Peter Williams, the teenager who murdered jeweller Marian Bates in Nottingham in 2003 during an armed robbery. Williams was supposed to have been monitored at the time when he committed the crime.

But Professor Morgan warns that cases like this may happen again as youth workers are bogged down with dealing with children who break windows or who are unruly in the playground.

"If we are dragging into the system kids who can be dealt with outside then we are overloading it and that means it's likely we will not do as good a job as the public expects with higher-risk cases."

He wants more schemes where dedicated police officers are used in schools to tackle anti-social behaviour. There are only 400 schemes in schools across the country, although these have been successful in reducing the number of children excluded from school and therefore reducing the possibility of such children committing a crime. The professor points out that this country comes out "pretty badly" in how it treats young people and that rising divorce rates and long working hours are all factors in child neglect and young people dropping out of school.

"I don't know a bigger turn-off for children than having supine adults in their household sitting watching a box all the time," he says. "We should be thinking seriously about how we view children - I think we demonise them. It strikes me that when you go to a Mediterranean country you see adults with not just adolescent children but very young children sitting in restaurants all eating family meals together, which you scarcely see in this country."

Greater controls on alcohol advertising are also necessary, he warns, to curb anti-social behaviour, and he is critical of the fact that licences were handed out like "confetti" in the late 1990s.

"If you look at advertising in this country, the targets are young people. We have liberalised things yet simultaneously adopted a much more punitive attitude to those who, in this freer climate, can't exercise self-control ... Once you've opened Pandora's box, trying to reverse the process is extremely difficult.

"I remember when my son was 16 he wasn't going to a pub in Bath because it was full of teenyboppers. Bath is awash with pubs with little control over who is using them."

The YJB is determined to reduce the number of children in custody by 10 per cent by 2008 but is frustrated when its attention is brought to cases where children are being locked up for breaking windows.

Chris Wright, the director of services at the youth support charity Rainer, says that more children need to be involved in schemes that will help reform their behaviour.

"There is a very thin line between adolescent mischief making and low-level crime," he says. "We need to ask ourselves - what is adolescence and what is actual criminal activity?"

Additional reporting by Megan Waitkoff and Jonathan Owen

Zach, 13: The child who was gagged

Zach was banned from using the word "grass" anywhere in England and Wales until 2010 after threatening other children for reporting him to the authorities.

He is also not allowed to use the main road in Moston, east Manchester, where he lives with his mother. His father, who is Asian, is separated from his mother. Zach, although the subject of racial abuse at school and often called a Paki, has also been banned from using this word. Expelled for cutting someone's legs, he has been described as a thug, but a psychologist said he finds it hard to concentrate due to a short attention span.

Dean, 15: The child who is ball mad

Dean, who is football-mad, was given an Asbo forbidding him from playing with his ball in the street.

Police applied for the order after confiscating 12 balls from him in two weeks. Durham magistrates were told he regularly used the local bus stop as a goal and would practise his skills in the middle of the road.

The teenager, from Pelton near Chester-le-Street, was given a map showing the areas where he cannot kick his football. He is also prohibited from going within 100 yards of the local community college, damaging property or congregating outside a number of takeaways.

Joseph, 4: The child whose toy hit a car

Joseph was threatened with an anti-social behaviour order after he threw his toy at the car of a council worker visiting his family's home.

His mother claimed that two days after the visit the official returned and said that she wanted to give the child an Asbo. Tower Hamlets council said that it did not intend to proceed with the threat against the tot, but would have been powerless to act anyway as the minimum age for a recipient is 10. Critics of Asbos said the case highlighted the dramatic rise in the number of orders being issued and illustrated why 97 per cent of applications are unsuccessful.

Mark, 15: The child who stole £1

Mark was given an Asbo and spent a night in the cells after snatching two 50p pieces from a bus driver's change tray.

He got off the bus as police arrived and set a dog on him. He was bitten twice before being arrested for attempted theft and put into a cell for the night, despite his family being at the scene. The Independent Police Complaints Commission is investigating his complaint at how he was treated. He is regarded as a persistent young offender and has spent time at Feltham Young Offenders' Institution, but says that the case has stolen part of his childhood.

Nathan, 16: The child who got a tattoo

Nathan was forbidden from showing his tattoos, wearing a single golf glove or a balaclava anywhere in the country.

If he breaches the Asbo - which also bans him from congregating in public with groups of more than three people - he could be jailed for up to five years. The order was imposed by magistrates in Manchester where he is part of Longsight's L$$$ gang. Mark Watling, a lawyer, described the golf glove, which signifies gang membership, as "a tight-fitting glove often used to discharge firearms".

The names in these case studies have been changed