Confine these youths in school, not in prison

Anyone who believes that a spell under lock and key will act as a deterrent to children is in denial of reality
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The Independent Online

Mrs Marie Watson, at 77 years old, died of complications related to her multiple injuries, a week after being mugged by a youth in his "early to mid teens". She was yards from her front door, in a heavily populated area, in daylight. Much has been made of the fact that her assailant gained nothing more than a fried fish and a handbag containing items worth less than £10.

The message in this pathetic, repugnant, detail is clear. Mrs Watson's assailant inflicted violence, pain, and ultimately death, not for any material gain, but because he wanted to. Which leaves only one question. What sort of a young person attacks and beats an elderly lady, for the sake of it?

One, surely, who has been involved in acts of violence before, who knows that he enjoys them, and who has been emboldened by his success in getting away with previous assaults. One, perhaps, who is therefore known to the police already. One, perhaps, who might even be a repeat offender released on bail because he is too young to be placed on remand.

Or perhaps not. There has, for years, been an outcry against the fact that young criminals could only be remanded in custody if they were suspected of committing serious crimes such as burglary, robbery or serious assault, and if they posed a proven danger of violence to society.

The Home Secretary David Blunkett has finally closed this loophole, and announced that serial offenders aged 12 to 16 can be put in detention for minor crimes. Plans are being made to find similar solutions for prolific offenders under the age of 12. Now all that remains to be seen is whether years of fixation on Troy, the scourge of the local high street, and his ilk, has been justified.

The logic is simple, and states that if more known criminals are put in jail, then there are fewer on the streets to threaten the public. For those who have been the victims of juvenile criminals in their communities, and who have watched those young criminals being bailed to commit their crimes again and again, this will surely prove to be a popular solution.

But the sad fact is that it can only ever be a short-term solution. Children jailed for minor crimes will have to come out of custody again, and sooner rather than later. What happens then? Anyone who insists on believing that a spell under lock and key alone will act as a deterrent to these children, or others, is simply in total denial of reality. The opposite is true – young people exposed to custodial sentences in this country generally emerge as more sophisticated and more brutal criminals.

I don't, as it happens, believe that young criminals should be allowed to roam the streets, free, in the words of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens, to go "strutting across the estates". But I still think that this decision is at best an irrelevance and at worst an act of gross cynicism.

It is common knowledge that there is actually nowhere to put these young offenders. Harry Fletcher, general secretary of Napo, the probation officers' union, summed the problem up best. He pointed out that there were six empty spaces in secure accommodation across England and Wales, and 30 prolific young offenders eligible as of June for the new secure remand appearing in the courts each day.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that this new initiative will have dealt with as many potential recruits as it possibly can, within hours of it coming into effect. What is the point of changing laws and altering procedures without initiating new infrastructures in order to deal with them?

For those somehow able to discount the fact that street crime has risen over the past five years against a sentencing culture which has seen the number of those in custody rising by 20,000 to capacity, the solution is to build more prisons. For those who wish to prevent young people from becoming embroiled in crime in the first place, the answer is to build more schools. The two approaches have for so long been on opposite shores of the political seascape, that compromise is seen as impossible.

But maybe it is not. At present, we have the worst of both worlds. While it might be difficult to get low-level child offenders into custody, once they are in educational provision is appalling. Child prisoners have a right to far less education than is expected of schoolchildren, and even that provision is more often than not unmet. More than 50 per cent of young offenders have a reading age of less than 11, and whether inside the prison system, or outside it, special needs programmes of the type they require are difficult to come by.

Why not then, instead of placing young criminals, or even young repeat suspects, in secure council accommodation, place them in secure boarding schools, from which they can return at weekends, tagged if necessary? This may not be the most liberal of ideas, but in a polarised debate, such institutions may break the impasse between locking 'em up, and rehabilitation. Any suggestion that difficult pupils of any kind should be placed in schools that cater to their needs exclusively, are subject to cries from the left of "sin bin". The spectre of Borstal still looms large, but there is every reason for these new institutions to learn from past mistakes.

Troubled and troubling children will first and foremost be under close scrutiny, in an environment where doing harm to others or themselves is less likely, and where routine and stability is guaranteed. At the same time they will be getting a full education from professionals trained to deal with their exacting demands.

As for their parents – whether they are part of the problem or part of the solution – they will be relieved of the day-to-day pressures of dealing with their difficult offspring, without the home relationship being entirely disrupted. They may be able to deal with their own problems better, and thereby find it easier to improve their relationships with their children.

For the wider community, there may be a problem of resentment, even though the immediate cause of their problems has been removed. Their children may still be struggling along at a failing school, while children in custody are being educated at gleaming, purpose-built institutions.

All that can be said here is that the removal of juvenile criminals from the community will have a positive effect on their lives more generally, even directly on the performance of the schools, that will be the same in the short term whatever condition the miscreants are held in, and better in the long term if rehabilitation is strongly built into the system. Nevertheless, citizens often do not like the idea that deviant people, even deviant children, are somehow being rewarded for their bad behaviour. This is one of the perennial problems with rehabilitation, and why it is never as popular a political solution as it ought to be.

The argument, however, needs eventually to be won. The pay-off must be seen as removal from the community in return for the acceptance of rehabilitation as the only tool that can make a decisive difference in the long term. Rehabilitation may cost us a lot. But while our prison system limps along as it is, inadequate, often brutal and largely unable to transform lives, innocent people such as Mrs Marie Watson, are paying with theirs.