As the controversy over the centres rumbled on, social work and probation groups yesterday dismissed John Major's 'too much understanding, too little condemning' edict on juvenile crime, claiming that community punishments effectively force offenders to confront their behaviour and change it.
Giving evidence before the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, Denise Platt, senior vice-president of the Association of Directors of Social Services and director of social services for the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, said social services did not treat juvenile offenders in a 'soft, soppy way.'
Tad Kubisa, director of social services for Cambridgeshire County Council, said 83 per cent of youngsters dealt with by social services had been successfully diverted from crime. 'Part of that diversion must be to change the individual inside themselves, rather than rely on external controls.'
Brian Littlechild, chairman of the British Association of Social Workers' justice sub-committee, said the split between understanding and condemning was not helpful in working with young people. 'What was helpful was to make them attend very regularly, at times which were inconvenient.'
Mr Littlechild said some youngsters said they would rather attend a young offenders institution than join the programme on offer.
John Harding, the chief probation officer for Inner London, representing the Association of Chief Officers of Probation, said Mr Major's reference to 'less understanding', first made in a party political broadcast in January, was simplistic and 'dispiriting'.
Mr Harding said his association had compiled evidence about 16- to 23-year-olds' social circumstances. 'For 1,400 young people (it) is a major picture of an underclass developing in this country who have not had experience of work, who've not had adequate access to training programmes.'
The number of persistent juvenile offenders was very small: 'I think we need to get things in proportion. Many juvenile offenders commit very minor offences. A vast majority of young people, as we know from the cautioning figures - 83 per cent - are not heard of by the police again.'
Home Office written evidence supplied to the committee includes the finding that offenders released from community homes were statistically less likely to have been reconvicted after two years than offenders released from young offenders institutions. Their reoffending was also likely to be less serious.
All the witnesses said the Home Secretary's plans for a new generation of secure schools for persistent juvenile offenders would turn out to be a costly failure. Quoting Douglas Hurd when he was Home Secretary, the scheme would be 'an expensive way to make bad things worse.'
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