Efforts to tackle teenage criminal gangs are patchy and often counter-productive, a report warned today.
Police, prison staff and probation workers have "missed significant opportunities" to rescue young people from lives of crime, watchdogs said.
They called on the Government to draw up a national strategy to support criminal justice agencies tackling the causes and effects of child gangs.
The findings were made in a joint report by criminal justice watchdogs responsible for overseeing prisons, probation and police.
Officials examined the work of youth offending teams and prisons holding young people to find how those on the frontline were tackling gang crime.
Dame Anne Owers, Andrew Bridges and Sir Denis O'Connor said many people working with teenage gang members feel they lack support.
In a joint statement, they said: "It is important not to exaggerate the extent of genuinely gang-related activity among young people, or to assist its growth by glamorising it.
"However, where such activity does exist, it is pernicious - affecting the safety and well-being of those involved, as well as the safety of their families and the community.
"Research showed that there was no integrated joint national strategy on gangs to support criminal justice and community agencies in tackling causes as well as effects.
"Agencies had therefore missed significant opportunities to work with young people involved or likely to get involved in gangs. Such an approach is overdue.
"It is welcome that there have been some more recent initiatives by the Youth Justice Board, but there remains a need for much greater co-ordinated action at national, inter-agency and inter-departmental level."
Officials examined work to divert young people from gangs and tackle gang-fuelled crime.
The report said they were hampered by a lack of research on what defines a "gang" and the lack of statistics on membership or offending.
They said young people often join gangs to protect themselves while accepting this could mean serious injury or even death.
Researchers said although police admit children as young as 10 are linked to gangs, there is a general lack of recognition of gang culture.
Many workers believed young men exaggerated their links to gangs and that gang issues "dissipated" in custody.
The report found police had the best understanding of gang activity but focussed on catching and convicting criminals at the expense of safeguarding young people.
Officials said police officers seconded to youth offending institutions and teams are an under-used resource who could provide vital information.
It also said youth offending teams varied widely in their approach, from enforcement to prevention and rehabilitation.
Inspectors criticised some prisons for keeping members of known gangs apart, reinforcing "postcode boundaries" of their neighbourhoods.
One prison refused to admit some inmates are linked to gangs, saying: "We don't want to create a monster that does not exist."
Frances Done, of the Youth Justice Board, said "significant progress" has been made since the report was commissioned in 2008.
She said: "We have made huge strides in co-ordinating the work between the police and youth offending teams to map out gang activity in different communities.
"And we have worked with custodial centres to safeguard under-18s by identifying gang members and placing them appropriately.
"We will continue to help and safeguard young people involved in gangs both in custody and the community."
Penelope Gibbs, of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "Membership of gangs should be seen just as much as a child welfare issue as a crime issue.
"Children who are members of criminal gangs put their lives and those of their family at risk. Girls involved in gangs are at great risk of sexual exploitation.
"Too many agencies focus on catching and convicting gang members, rather than on preventing children getting involved in gangs or on helping them to extricate themselves.
"As so often, the remedies used are a sticking plaster, rather than a long-term solution."
Dame Anne Owers is the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Andrew Bridges is Chief Inspector of Probation and Sir Denis O'Connor is Chief Inspector of Constabulary.
Police and Criminal Justice Minister Nick Herbert said: "Gangs can cause significant harm to our communities, through crime and the false sense of security they provide young people.
"This report raises important issues about how we tackle gangs both at local and national level and I will be urging prisons, probation and youth offending teams to consider what more can be done.
"This Government is determined to work with its partners to tackle gang-related crime and provide support to help people leave gang life behind."Reuse content