Now, with Labour threatening to steal the Tories' law and order thunder in the wake of James Bulger's death, Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, is promising new, and possibly privately run, institutions to take the country's persistent 'nasty pieces of work'.
It was at the Tory party conference in 1979 - the year they swept to power - that William Whitelaw, the then Home Secretary, outlined his 'short, sharp, shock' solution to the then perceived nastier items in society.
Borstals, which took young people up to 21, were already under attack by the European courts and justice lobby because children and young people were not given fixed sentences and instead served much longer periods than their offences merited. They were also regarded as breeding grounds for further criminal activity. Detention centres, introduced during the 1950s and extended during the Sixties and Seventies, for 14 to 17-year-olds, had come to be regarded as 'soft'.
Mr Whitelaw introduced the short, sharp, shock - a military-style training and punishment programme - at four centres. Four years later, when it was found the policy affected neither the rate of crime nor re-conviction - and magistrates preferred sentences involving supervision coupled with treatment - it was consigned to the penal policy dustbin.
'It was a catastrophic failure,' Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said. 'It produced fitter criminals who could outrun the police.' The policy went the same way as borstals and detention centres, merged in 1982 to form prison-style young offender institutions, designed to take 15 to 21-year-olds. These now house most young offenders, although older ones facing more serious charges often go to prisons.
The need to deal carefully with the smaller number of younger children who commit serious crimes has long been recognised. For those aged 10 to 14, the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 provides for their detention at the Home Secretary's discretion.
Children up to 14 are held in local authority or Department of Health secure treatment units, like Aycliffe in Co Durham and Glenthorne in Birmingham. These evolved following the 1968 case of Mary Bell, who aged 11, killed two younger children. At the time there was no suitable place to hold her. Those under 10 - the age of criminal responsibility - can also be taken into local authority care.
'Current legislation allows young people as young as 10 to be locked up for extensive periods, by which I mean many years. That is why I do not understand police and others complaining that they are helpless to deal with very young offenders,' Professor Norman Tutt, director of Social Information Systems and co-author of Children in Custody, said.
The secure treatment units hold about 350 children. It is these that the justice lobby and Labour would like extended. They argue that the new units suggested by Mr Clarke look like a cross between approved homes and borstals - both seen as dismal failures.
Dr Shaw said that magistrates - largely responsible for the demise of the 'short, sharp, shock' - had already expressed their concerns about Mr Clarke's new policy.