Custody for young offenders opposed

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The Independent Online
(First Edition)

PLANS to lock up more young offenders are a costly 'panic measure' which can only lead to more crime, according to a report published today.

The Government has pledged a crackdown on juvenile crime, with legislation promised to give courts power to impose a secure training order on 12- to 15-year-olds.

But the Penal Affairs Consortium says in its report that the proposals are 'misguided and unlikely to make any impact on juvenile offending - except to make it worse.

'All the evidence suggests that incarcerating juveniles only leads to a hardening in their criminal behaviour, setting them on the path to a life of crime,' it says.

'In contrast, diverting young people from custody and using community sentences is demonstrably more effective in turning juveniles away from crime.'

The consortium, which is supported by 23 organisations concerned with the penal system, including prison staff and probation officers, disputes claims that young offenders are getting away with serious crimes because police and courts lack powers to deal with them.

It says courts can already give custodial sentences to juveniles who have committed very serious offences against the person.

Local authorities also provide secure accommodation for other serious offenders, although the consortium accepts that more such units may be needed.

It maintains there is no evidence that Britain is gripped by an epidemic of juvenile crime, or that there are large numbers of persistent young offenders.

It estimates that it costs pounds 452 a week to lock up a juvenile in a young offender institution, and past experience shows that incarceration leads to high rates of reoffending.

The non-custodial approach has been more successful, it claims, with surveys indicating that only about one in 10 young offenders cautioned by police are convicted within two years.

Community sentences, which force offenders to confront their criminal behaviour, have also had 'notable successes'.

Warning that ministers are about to 'take a step in the wrong direction', the consortium's report concludes: 'A panic measure which runs counter to other recent government legislation and promises to place an increased burden on the taxpayer . . . will do nothing effectively to tackle juvenile offending.'