Eye witness: Little terrors bring fear to the High St

Juvenile crime » Traders and residents despair at unruly youngsters who defy court orders and delight in their status as outlaws

"You gonna put my face in the paper?" The boy who is shouting can't be more than 13. "Just because I'm drunk doesn't mean I'm bad," says this skinny child from under a baseball cap as he waves a can of Stella. Then he spits at the ground by my feet.

"You gonna put my face in the paper?" The boy who is shouting can't be more than 13. "Just because I'm drunk doesn't mean I'm bad," says this skinny child from under a baseball cap as he waves a can of Stella. Then he spits at the ground by my feet.

He's with a dozen friends, some younger, mouthing off and stumbling about on Gillingham High Street in Kent after dark. They are well aware of the closed circuit television cameras and security guards watching them, but want to know what photographer Tom Pilston is doing here.

"Is it because we're hard?" asks another child, the hood of his tracksuit top pulled down over his eyes. "We terrorise this place," he mutters, trying out language picked up from the press. It has been a good week for little villains who want to be famous.

First there was the 11-year-old girl in Bristol who smashed her way into a supermarket while a passing photographer caught it all on film. The images were reproduced on several front pages.

Then there were the brothers in Weston-super-Mare, said to have committed 138 offences despite being subject to anti-social behaviour orders. And six more orders were issued to teenagers on Tyneside who had thrown stones at ambulance crews - not long after those same medics had saved some of them from death by drugs overdose.

On Wednesday the Prime Minister held a summit on street crime attended by senior police officers and Cabinet members. Afterwards he resurrected plans to fine drunks and hooligans on the spot – an idea ridiculed when it was first proposed two years ago, and undermined when the police discovered Euan Blair drunk in Leicester Square in London's West End.

Now though, polls suggest the Government is losing popularity because of a perceived failure to tackle violent crime. Something must be done.

The shopkeepers of Gillingham are holding their breath, but not to see what the Government does. They have mostly given up on that. They are waiting for a court to decide on Tuesday what should happen to the brother and two sisters known to headline writers as the Terror Triplets.

Shane, Sarah, and Natalie Morris, 13, were among eight children from the town issued with anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs) in February 2001. They had threatened and intimidated shop staff, used foul language, and caused damage.

The children were told to keep away from the High Street, but after a while the triplets took no notice. They were filmed by CCTV cameras kicking the doors of Woolworths as one of their friends struggled with security guards.

One guard said they had threatened to put a petrol bomb through the letterbox of his home.

Earlier this month the triplets were found guilty of breaching the orders, the maximum penalty for which is five years in custody. They will be sentenced on Tuesday. The prospect of having to pay for them to stay in a secure unit – at a cost of up to £450,000 a year – makes Medway Council reluctant to use the orders again.

"The Government trumpeted ASBOs as the answer to everybody's prayers," says Cllr Angela Prodger. "They did stop a situation that was becoming intolerable, for a while. But we haven't been given the money to offer families the support they need, or to pay for taking the children into our care when it all goes wrong."

On Gillingham High Street, shopkeepers and customers say the orders will become useless if children are not punished for ignoring them. They have just heard that the man in charge of the magistrates believes the triplets cannot be locked up, because they are not classified in court as persistent offenders.

Colin Hogan, owner of C and R Sports, is furious: "They've got to send a clear message to the rest of the kids or there will be gang warfare next week. They will be laughing at us, because they'll know there's nothing anybody can do to stop them."

The Hogans have made it their family business to confront the troublesome teenagers. Colin's son Ray, 24, is the security guard at the Co-op. "I've been headbutted by an 11-year-old, the smallest of the group," he says. "If that was a grown man I would have the legal right to retaliate with reasonable force. Last night they threw bottles, threatened to knife me and spat on my trousers. I've had hassle like that for three years, day in and day out, and there's nothing I can do about it. The court system has dropped us in it."

Meanwhile, the gaggle of children outside has doubled in size. You can see their like on any High Street in the country. Gillingham has known tougher yobs, in its military and maritime past. Some of these new ones may well be fledgling villains, but others are just messing about as bored kids have always done. Or posturing.

My friend in the baseball cap breaks away from the group, and swaggers over. "Listen mate," he says, quietly. "Don't put my face in the paper. My mum will kill me."

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