Deborah Orr: A simple equation: the tougher we are on youth crime, the worse the problem is

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The Independent Online

It is hard to believe, as one digests despairingly both the steady supply of individual stories of needless, pointless loss and the more general figures about young people and violent behaviour, that Labour has kept its 1997 promise to be "tough on crime". Yet, it has.

It is hard to believe too that Labour's redefinition of itself as the party of law and order, in stark contrast to a Conservative administration that was viewed as having created the conditions under which uncontrolled youth crime flourished, was an important aspect of its 1997 landslide victory, and one that it has delivered on.

Further, the development of the youth justice system over the past 10 years is a stern refutation of those routine accusations that Labour has pumped money into public services without driving through accompanying reform. The youth justice system has been entirely recast during this Government's lifetime, restructured, redefined, given that high degree of multi-disciplinary local autonomy the Conservatives are so fond of saying is now so very necessary. It has also been backed with heavy investment.

Labour's success in toughening up its stance on youth crime can be seen in the increasing numbers of children that have been drawn into the system in recent times. Britain, it is often pointed out, now has the highest rate of incarceration for children in Western Europe, while across European Council countries only Ukraine jails more children than we do. Such statistics, nevertheless, do nothing to temper popular accusations that Britain is still terribly indulgent towards its criminal children.

Yet, in the three years to 2006 there was a 19 per cent increase in the number of children being reprimanded or given a final warning or conviction for an indictable offence, and a 39 per cent increase in those being dealt with formally for summary or minor offences. The latter, particularly, confirms that there has been "a significant shift towards formal criminal justice responses in dealing with children's misbehaviour," says the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS).

The CCJS has just published an independent audit of Labour's youth justice reforms over the past 10 years, which is a pretty timely service, as one considers how on earth being tough on crime can have apparently resulted in crime becoming tougher (as in more gun-toting or knife-wielding). The document suggests that it might now be well worth considering whether it was ever a good idea to focus on the criminal justice system as a means of reducing crime in the first place.

This ambition was enshrined in section 37 of the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, which established a new youth justice system with Youth Offending Teams and a Youth Justice Board. "It shall be the principle aim of the youth justice system to prevent offending by children and young persons," declared the Act.

Yet while there has been some success in reducing certain types of crime, the evidence suggests that self-reported criminal activity by young people has remained the same throughout this period of change. In fact, since surveys measuring self-reported crime exclude very serious crimes (because self-reporting of such crimes would, even if it was likely to happen, place an intolerable moral burden on surveyors), one must rely on conviction rates alone to confirm that, in this area at least, the increase has been vexatious.

It is useful here to take a look at finance in the youth justice system. Since the turn of the millennium spending on youth justice has increased in real terms by 45 per cent, the largest increase of all of the criminal justice agencies, apart from probation. During 2006-07 a total of £648.5m was spent on youth justice, two-thirds of this sum being met by the Youth Justice Board.

The Board committed 64 per cent of its spending on commissioning custodial places (it costs an average of £50,000 to keep a child in jail for a year), while it spent five per cent of the total on prevention.

Funding from statutory agencies at local authority level was made up of resources provided by the police, the probation services, education, social services (now children's services), health, and local authority chief executives. Significantly, half of all funding was provided by social services. A great deal of money is being spent on social care inside the youth justice system, instead of outside it, on the preventative measures for which the need is so apparent.

The report also found that the delivery of social and personal care within the youth justice system remained problematic. Diverting social care into prison, to follow children with social problems who have been diverted into prison, is, it would seem, good neither for children nor for social care. Children who are drawn into the criminal justice system tend to have problems with accommodation, often linked to the breakdown of family relationships. Although each of the 156 YOTs is obliged to employ an accommodation officer, the YJB's research found that in "nine out of 10 of the research sites, stakeholders reported insufficient accommodation in their local area for young people who had offended".

Likewise, the link between poor educational attainment and youth criminality is strong. Both the expectation and the results of educational initiatives in Secure Training Centres and Local Authority Secure Children's Homes are fairly high. But the majority of children are in Youth Offender Institutions, where nearly two-thirds make no improvement at all in their literary and numeracy skills, often simply because they are not there for a serious offence demanding a long incarceration.

Substance abuse, again, is a high risk-factor in child criminality, and again, assessment and treatment is patchy. All children are supposed to be assessed for substance abuse when they enter custody, but 13 per cent are not. As for whether intervention works, "there are no data available on the proportion of those who have a comprehensive assessment who go on to enter treatment or the numbers who complete that treatment." The situation is similar in mental health, with up to a quarter of YOTs experiencing difficulties in accessing mental health services at all.

The worry must be that Labour has spent a great deal of its time and energy over the last 10 years being "tough on crime" but not quite so tough on "the causes of crime". The Government understands the importance of early intervention, but in introducing policies that prioritise people being "brought to justice", even for minor offences, it has swelled the prison population.

This, in the youth justice arena, has ensured that 10 times as much of the YJB's cash is being spent on incarceration than is being spent on the preventive projects that are such a theoretically essential part of its remit. Further, the emphasis on youth justice is diverting social services funds into environments where it is a struggle to access social services support at all.

The report concludes: "It is time to raise some fundamental questions about whether the youth justice agencies can really address the complex economic and social factors which are the cause of youth offending." I fear it might actually have been time to raise those questions quite some while back.