Out of control?: Tough sentences, kind sentences: nothing seems to deter young offenders. But teaching them to think just might. Nick Cohen and Michael Durham report

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The Independent Online
THE SAME faces appear before Newport Juvenile Court again and again. Twelve-year-old children are charged with shoplifting and let off with a warning only to reappear a few months later accused of burglary. Sixteen-year-olds are finally given youth custody only to come out and carry on as before.

Magistrates in the south Wales town try kind sentences and try tough sentences, but nothing stops the local crime rate rising.

Last summer, the chairman of the Newport Juvenile Bench collared one young delinquent - Lee Ridley, a local boy with dozens of convictions - on the courtroom steps.

'What do you do it for?' Robert Hatton Evans, a silver-haired financial consultant, asked. 'It's pointless. We see you in court week after week. Why can't you stop?'

'Because it's boring here,' the 15- year-old replied. 'What the fuck else is there to do?'

A few weeks after the confrontation, Ridley and three friends stole a car and roared out of Newport at 100mph. Ridley crashed the car and died in a rubbish-filled ditch. The police took local teenage offenders to view the corpse but afterwards admitted that the attempt at shock treatment was probably a waste of time. Even Ridley's friends, who had gone joy-riding with him, left the hospital loudly proclaiming their indifference.

Mr Hatton Evans's daily confrontations with recidivists such as Ridley have left him wondering if he can achieve anything as a magistrate.

'Several of my colleagues have resigned from the bench in despair,' he said. 'There are times when I too feel very sad . . . sad and disillusioned. You bend over backwards to help the child, but they just don't care. There are some you can't do anything for.'

SIMILAR views were echoed by Cleveland police last week. On Wednesday, an 11-year-old boy smashed a stolen Astra into an elderly couple's garden. Hartlepool police arrested and cautioned him, but could not hold him because he was under 14. That night, ITN showed film of the boy parading unrepentantly outside the couple's home, with a balaclava over his head. On Tuesday, the Daily Express reported that a 13-year-old in Sunderland had stolen more than 200 cars in two years. He had already been in court four times, and had three more cases pending against him. Magistrates had sent him to a remand home on several occasions but he had absconded within hours.

Crime has risen in nearly every year since 1945. Since 1971, offences recorded by the police have trebled - to more than six million in the UK. Juvenile crime has mushroomed - up 54 per cent in the past 10 years, senior police officers told the Home Affairs Select Committee last week. 'Juveniles are coming in and continually laughing at you,' Virgina Neild, an inspector in the West Midlands and secretary to the Police Federation, told the committee. 'We have a small hard core who have absolutely no fear of the criminal justice system,' John Hoddinott, the Chief Constable of Hampshire, said. The Government, the police argued, should re-introduce borstals.

Politicians, too, are exercised about the rise in crime. In his recent Carlton Club speech, John Major said that 'we must tackle the problem of rising crime openly and directly'. On Thursday, Tony Blair, Labour's Home Affairs spokesman, said that the 50 per cent rise in burglaries since 1989 was 'an epidemic in anybody's language'. The breakdown in law and order was not confined to the inner cities, he said. 'If you go into many towns and villages, you will find, on Friday and Saturday nights, affrays, disturbances and fights that leave people frightened of going about their business. It is outrageous.'

Behind the rhetoric, however, politicians share with magistrates and the police a sense of hopelessness about crime. The Prime Minister could offer nothing beyond a call for society to talk 'about right and wrong' while Mr Blair proposed 'community co-operation' and 'new employment and training opportunities'.

The Tory back benches continue to call for tougher prison sentences, Labour MPs for improved social conditions and better probation services. But neither front bench argues with any conviction that either approach is likely to arrest the seemingly inexorable rise in crime. And this reflects the intellectual orthodoxy of their advisers.

For 20 years, the central tenet of crime theory has been that nothing works. Academic studies 'proved' that harsh deterrents, short sharp shocks, imprisonment, probation, training, employment, education - everything from the harshest to the softest measures - were all useless. No punishment altered the likelihood that a criminal would reoffend on release.

This view was based on the work of Professor Robert Martinson, a New York sociologist who became a media star. In 1974, he announced that he had examined 231 prison systems around the world and found that, no matter how offenders were treated, the chances of steering them away from crime were the same. Other academics in the United States and Britain confirmed his results and added that different systems of probation and experimental treatments also had no effect on reconviction rates. 'Nothing Works' became a catchphrase used by criminologists in countless conferences and reports.

It was an instant ideological success across the political spectrum. It got both governments and theorists off the hook of trying to explain why none of their solutions had any effect on the crime rate. US conservatives argued that, if rehabilitating criminals did not work, the penal system must protect the public from unreformable criminals by 'incapacitating' them. They called for, and got, longer fixed-term sentences and the death penalty. The Marxists saw Professor Martinson's work as confirmation that social ills were inevitable under capitalism; only a revolution could cure crime.

In Britain, Sir John May's inquiry into jails in 1979 asserted that rehabilitation was all but impossible and said that ministers should aim merely to 'contain' prisoners humanely. Prison reformers argued that overcrowded jails should be emptied because prison was so clearly a failure. In particular, they argued, young offenders should be kept out of custody because it brought them into contact with older or more hardened offenders who would give them lessons in crime.

Borstals, which would have taken boys like Lee Ridley and tried to reform them through training and public- school-style discipline, were abolished in 1982. They were replaced by young offender's institutions which, having no 'training' function, are designed only to keep miscreants off the streets. (It has never been possible to imprison 11-year-olds such as the Hartlepool boy.)

Aware that Britain locked up more offenders than any other Western country - and that this had failed to stem the national crime wave - the Conservatives gradually accepted the liberal agenda during the 1980s. The focus switched to crime prevention. People should fit stronger locks and launch 'community watch' schemes, ministers said. If nothing the state did made any difference, what else was there to do but turn your house into a fortress?

In the US, the Supreme Court upheld federal sentencing guidelines which all but stated that the rehabilitation of offenders was no longer an aim of penal policy. In Britain, Home Office officials who believed in rehabilitation left the Civil Service to follow other careers.

Yet the Tories had only just taken office when Professor Martinson himself renounced his theories. He was a liberal trying to end the often barbaric US practice of keeping minor offenders in jail indefinitely unless they proved they had reformed. He was appalled to see his ideas taken up by law- and-order hardliners.

He went back to his data. He had been wrong, he announced in 1979; many rehabilitation schemes had worked. A radio interviewer asked what he thought about his 'Nothing Works' theory. 'I was talking shit,' Martinson replied. A year later, in 1980, he threw himself from the ninth- floor window of his Manhattan apartment while his teenage son looked on.

AFTER Professor Martinson's death, other academic studies showed that some ways of treating offenders did cut crime. But the new view seeped only gradually into policy. Now, for the first time in a generation, the Home Office is subscribing to rehabilitation.

The change, which has yet to be noticed by politicians, was heralded in a remarkably evangelical speech given by Christopher Nuttall, the Home Office's hard-headed Director of Research and Statistics, last year. ' 'Nothing Works' should be killed,' he told a meeting of chief probation officers, 'not just because it is not right but because it has had a terrible effect. Let's not talk about it any more. Let's talk about what does work.' Joe Pilling, the then Director-General of the Prison Service, voiced the same sentiments. His aim was to make 'a real difference to the prospect of at least some prisoners leading law-abiding lives after release'.

So if 'Nothing Works' is false, what does work? The Home Office is exploring a variety of different ideas. One project aims to find out if crime can be prevented by stopping teenagers playing truant from school; another looks at the merits of helping abused children in violent families. In inner London and in Hereford and Worcester, probation centres have cut reconviction rates dramatically by treating offenders' behavioural, alcohol and drugs problems.

But the greatest excitement is about a pilot project run by probation officers in Bridgend, 50 miles down the coast from Mr Hatton Evans's Newport. It involves 130 of the Mid Glamorgan town's most persistent young offenders, aged 17 to 25. On average, each of these young men has nine convictions and two jail sentences behind him.

The ideas for reforming them come from a Canadian sociologist called Robert Ross. He has written a 400- page book, setting out a 70-hour 'cognitive skills' course.

The book and its practitioners use sociological concepts which are not common in the argot of the average villain - value enhancement, victim awareness, critical reasoning, social perspective taking, emotional management. But the basic idea is simple: persistent offenders fail to learn. They commit crimes even when the chances of reward are slight and the chances of being caught are high. As the course notes state, persistent young criminals are often 'impulsive, self-centred, illogical and rigid in their thinking' or, to put it bluntly, stupid. The aim of the course is to teach them to think before they get themselves into trouble.

So the young men, divided into groups of eight, learn how to recognise when they are in danger of losing control and how to control their anger with breathing and muscle-relaxation. 'Social skills' are drummed into them. They learn how to distinguish between facts and opinions, how to respond to negotiations, how to ask for help and how to deal with failure. They take part in 'psycho-dramas' in which they act out different roles and may learn to re- examine their beliefs and to see crimes from their victims' point of view.

Professor Ross's book has the status of holy writ. The classes are recorded on video so that monitors can ensure the teachers have not deviated from the prescribed tests and exercises. Journalists are notallowed into the classes and it is strictly forbidden to photocopy any part of the course book.

The supporters of Professor Ross's methods say that, whatever the role of unemployment and poverty as explanations for crime, strategies for dealing with individual criminals must be as concerned with their personalities as with their social conditions. 'Poverty and all the other social ills may explain a lot of crime,' said Dr Colin Roberts, lecturer in social studies at Oxford University and a former Home Office researcher, 'but they do not explain why one poor man stops offending the first time he's caught when another man goes on and on however many times he is punished by the courts. They do not explain why one speeding motorist will slow down when he sees a police car and another will step on the accelerator and start a high-speed chase.'

'We are not trying to solve offenders' housing or employment problems,' added David Sutton, chief probation officer in Mid Glamorgan. 'We are trying to give them thinking skills so they can recognise when they are in a dangerous situation and control themselves.'

Will it work? The results in Canada are startling. In Ottawa, just 18 per cent of criminals who went through the 'cognitive skills' programme re-

offended. Among a control group of offenders who received standard probation treatment, 69.5 per cent went on to commit further crimes. The early results from Bridgend are also encouraging, the Home Office said last week.

Other chief probation officers are already looking at imitating the programme. Prison department officials have gone to Canada to see if cognitive skills training can be introduced in British jails. 'We are watching with eager anticipation,' said one senior Home Office official. 'If it produces anything like the Canadian results, then it's the way forward. No doubt.'

THE enthusiasm generated by the supporters of the new ideas is contagious. But the history of 'scientific' theories of crime should be a warning to anybody who may be carried away by Professor Ross's solutions.

In 1870, Cesare Lombroso, an Italian physician, proposed that criminals were evolutionary throwbacks. Like 'savages and apes', they could be recognised by their enormous jaws, high cheekbones, handle-shaped ears, love of orgies and craving for evil, he said. These ideas were highly influential and did not die out until the turn of the century. The 1960s saw equally determinist and dubious claims that violent criminals were violent because they had an extra Y-chromosome.

Are we in danger of replacing large jawbones and big ears as indicators of criminality with the 'impulsive, self- centred, illogical and rigid thinking' identified by Professor Ross. One leading prison reformer (who did not want to be named) thought that Ross's theories could be used to label large sections of the population as potentially criminal. His fears are not entirely fanciful. Researchers in California, free from the constraints of the 'Nothing Works' theory, are once again asking if criminals can be 'cured' by altering their biochemistry or cutting bits out of their brains.

There is also the more mundane danger: that if teaching cognitive skills works, it might simply produce brighter criminals better able to outwit the police.

British reformers insist that they know the pitfalls and how to avoid them. 'We are not in the business of making predictions,' said one Home Office official. 'We're not going to pick out people at 15 and treat them as if they are likely to be serious offenders at 25. Programmes must be tailored to individual needs. We don't have a new dogma. We believe that some things work with some criminals sometimes . . . that's all.'

The aim of the programme is to deal with crime which is senseless both from the victim's and the offender's point of view - like late-night hooliganism in small towns, joy-riding, and the burglar who beats up an old lady and steals pounds 5.

David Sutton tells the story of one of his course's failures, a young man who went through the programme, learnt all about problem solving and the rest, only to go and start offending again.

'You are a disgrace,' the judge at Merthyr Tydfil told him, 'a menace to your neighbours and danger to society.'

'Is that a fact, Your Honour,' replied the young criminal, newly educated in intellectual niceties, 'or an opinion?'

(Photograph omitted)