Teenagers targeted in crime crackdown

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Thousands more teenagers are being dragged into the criminal justice system for petty offences, threatening to set them on the path to adult crime, ministers are warned today. The numbers of under-18s being convicted or formally cautioned has almost doubled in some parts of the country, the Institute for Public Policy Research has disclosed.

The centre-left think-tank discovered that the number of children convicted or cautioned rose by 27 per cent between 2002 and 2007, a period during which crime levels fell, and the number of under-15s being criminalised has leapt by a third.

James Crabtree, the institute's associate director of public services, said: "Current targets to bring more offenders 'to justice' have resulted in the police concentrating on easier-to -solve low-level crimes committed by children and teenagers who often have complex problems. This serves to criminalise young people, increases reoffending and misdirects resour-ces from severe offences and crime prevention."

The institute suggests a "tiered system" under which lower-level young offenders are dealt with by "community justice panels" supervising "payback schemes" such as removing graffiti. Youth courts would be reserved for serious offenders. The Independent disclosed in April that an attempt to cut the number of children behind bars by 10 per cent between 2005 and 2008 had failed. There has been an 8 per cent rise in the juvenile prison population over the period.

Ministers are about to set out a new approach to the problem, recommending an emphasis on local councils working with wayward children before they commit serious offences.

*One in five young adults has a relative or friend who has had a gun or knife used against them or been threatened with one over the past year, a YouGov survey for the think-tank Policy Exchange has discovered.