Young offenders need more help from judges, says Woolf

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The Independent Online

Judges should act as mentors to teenage criminals who appear in their courts, the Lord Chief Justice said yesterday as he outlined proposals for tackling the escalation in violent street crime.

Lord Woolf, speaking to an audience of child welfare experts and lawyers, said judges could help to break the cycle of crime and punishment by taking a greater interest in the rehabilitation of young offenders.

While he welcomed government initiatives for "attacking" street crime, he said the "real success" of these powers depended on what happened to the offenders after they were sentenced. In a speech to the Michael Sieff Foundation Conference in London, he said: "Regrettably there can be no denial that action was necessary. Street crimes, crimes which can terrify the public, were doing just that. This is a situation which cannot be tolerated. If the resources are provided for this then I do believe there is a need for the new powers."

But he said government initiatives would "not achieve the intended long-term change we need" if young offenders were left "warehoused ... languishing in overcrowded, secure accommodation".

Lord Woolf argued that "radical change" in dealing with young offenders was now needed. He said he "attached particular importance" to mentoring and monitoring schemes, and that giving judges a greater say in the way young offenders are dealt with after sentencing "could help in breaking the vicious cycle of offending, punishment, release, reoffending and punishment again".

Recent figures show that 76 per cent of males under 21 and 58 per cent of women under 21 reoffend within two years of being released. "It is important to recognise that we, as judges, have a responsibility for what becomes of young defendants. That we recognise that we have a continuing duty and that we are accountable for failures resulting from inadequacies in our current system of punishment and rehabilitation."

Earlier this year Lord Woolf proposed giving judges powers to order the early release of prisoners whom they had sentenced. He suggested judges should be allowed to assess a prisoner's suitability for release earlier than under the current parole system.