Pre-teen offenders face being locked up

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The Independent Online

Child tearaways aged 10 and 11 could be held in a new type of secure foster home under plans being formulated by David Blunkett.

The Home Secretary is also considering expanding the use of local authority-run homes to hold persistent troublemakers of that age who are beyond the law at present. But critics say the plans are unworkable and likely to contravene human rights legislation.

Frustration in the police and criminal justice system is growing at the apparent powerlessness to deal with very young offenders. One 11-year-old from Cardiff has made 150 court appearances in a year, mainly for taking cars. In Bristol, a girl of 11 was arrested for the 36th time this year.

At present, those aged 10 and 11 can only be remanded, to secure accommodation if they are suspected or convicted of committing crimes punishable by sentences of at least 14 years. This covers robbery, house burglary, and wounding with intent, among others.

In a significant shift from recent thinking that young offenders were best left with their families whenever possible, Mr Blunkett said yesterday that he was looking for new ways to deal with 10 and 11-year-old troublemakers who commit low-level crimes. He explained: "I'm working with the Department of Health on the expansion of operation of care orders and the way in which protective custody can be contemplated where the family has broken down, the community has not been able to intervene and professional services have not been able to stop continuing misbehaviour. Intensive fostering is a real option which we should be exploring."

"Until we can secure them and work with them, we are not going to be able to make progress and change their behaviour."

The new measures will be included in a criminal justice White Paper this year, Mr Blunkett told a youth crime conference in London.

Among the ideas being considered are the use of paid foster parents who would provide secure accommodation for young offenders. Courts could also be encouraged to make more supervision orders placing offenders in local authority children's homes for up to six months.

The worst offenders could be put in the 430 places available in secure units or "child jails". Children convicted of minor offences and those awaiting trial could also be placed under secure super-vision.

Asked if this was a departure from traditional efforts to keep young offenders at home as much as possible, Mr Blunkett said: "If a family are part of the problem, that may not always be the best solution."

The ideas were immediately attacked as impractical. Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "Local authorities have struggled for more than 20 years to recruit foster parents so it's going to be extremely difficult to persuade them to make their homes secure.

"Putting children of 10 in protective custody would almost certainly breach the Human Rights Act under the rights of family life, imprisonment without due process and the right to a fair trial."

Proposals to place repeat offenders aged 12 to 16 in secure accommodation while awaiting trial for relatively minor offences were also outlined by Mr Blunkett.

The Home Secretary is to enact an existing piece of legislation to allow magistrates' courts to lock up troublemakers accused of less serious crimes. This will mean they can be remanded in custody for offences including vehicle crime, threatening behaviour, affray, theft, criminal damage and non-domestic burglary.

Mr Blunkett said: "I'm determined that we close the loophole in the law that allows these persistent young offenders to walk away from court on bail to create further havoc in the community."

But Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, said simply locking up children and young offenders ran the risk of creating a new generation of criminals who would be "stigmatised and socially excluded for life". He said children as young as eight were being arrested for serious offences such as robbery and he urged teachers, social workers and courts to help police intervene before youngsters became caught up in a life of crime.

Other proposed measures include the extension of orders requiring parents and guardians to keep problem children out of trouble, even if they have not been convicted of an offence, and greater use of electronic tags for night-time curfews.