Labour may fail to meet target on young offenders

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The Government is failing to honour a manifesto pledge to cut in half the time it takes to process young offenders in the criminal justice system.

The Government is failing to honour a manifesto pledge to cut in half the time it takes to process young offenders in the criminal justice system.

One of Labour's five pledges before the party won the general election, almost exactly three years ago, was to reduce the time between a persistent young offender's arrest and sentence. The party promised to lower the average time from 142 days in 1996 to 71 days before the end of its first term.

But figures released yesterday show that while some regions are close to meeting the target, others such as Hertfordshire and Sussex have recorded average periods of 145 and 144 days respectively.

The Lord Chancellor's Department said yesterday that there was "no room for complacency" and ministers were now looking at ways to bring into line the "poor performers".

After previous figures, for 1998, were released in November last year, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, hailed the achievements of North Wales and Warwickshire in reducing delays between arrest and sentence as a model for Britain.

But according to yesterday's results, North Wales has slipped from 69 days to 74 days and Warwickshire remains unchanged on 70 days.

A spokesman for the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro) said that young offenders still spent "many, many months" in the criminal justice system. "This can't be good for the victims of these crimes or the offenders. The longer the time between arrest and sentence the less likelihood the offender will associate the penalty with his or her actions."

A spokeswoman for the Lord Chancellor's Department, which published the figures, said it was still confident of meeting its target. She said the government-appointed Youth Justice Board had reported that it would be able to do so some time in 2001.

Yesterday's report showed that the national average time between arrest and sentence for persistent young offenders in England and Wales had fallen to 108 days in 1999 from 125 days in 1998. This compares with 141 days in 1997 and 142 days in 1996. Young offenders were dealt with most speedily in 1999 in Warwickshire at 70 days, followed by Dorset and North Wales at 72 and 74 days respectively.

But the Nacro spokesman said that "squashing" the time period between arrest and sentence only addressed part of the problem. He said more effort should be made to keep young offenders out of court altogether.

A persistent young offender is a person aged 10 to 17 who has been sentenced at least three times within three years.

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