Deborah Orr: Proof that we fail too many children

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The Independent Online

It is quite normal for people to be evangelical about the wonders of their own area of expertise. So it is not surprising that Gary Pugh, director of forensic services at Scotland Yard, believes that recording the DNA of the children most at risk of falling into criminality is a good idea. But with around 360,000 children already on the police DNA database, and the figure projected to be 1.2m in the horribly near future, one has to ask whether the real problem is being able to identify children at risk of offending, or summoning the resources to make positive interventions early on.

For the past 10 years, early intervention, on paper at least, has been a government priority. That decade, though, has seen a ten-fold rise in the number of incarcerated children. And while there is a widespread assumption that the leap in penal custody for children has been commensurate with a leap in their serious criminality, the figures do not bear this out.

In 1992, according to Stephen Jakobi of the campaigning group Children Aren't Criminals, 100 people under 15 were sentenced to penal custody. All of those came under the "grave crimes" provision of the 1933 Children and Young Persons Act. In 2005-06 the number was 824, though only 48 of them would have been categorised under the 1933 Act as having committed "grave crimes". So half as many quite young children were convicted of very serious offences, which is good. But the habit of locking them up for less serious ones has become ingrained, which is not so good.

At least part of the problem is early intervention itself, or rather the way it is administered and monitored. Labour has introduced a plethora of measures designed to keep young people out of custody, while still ensuring that they experience a punitive response. Some aim for prevention, some for pre-court intervention, others for sentencing in the community. The most high-profile among community orders is the notorious anti-social behaviour order, but there are a number of others, and 14 different requirements can be attached to them, from tags to curfews to attendance at Saturday morning supplementary education classes.

The trouble with a lot of them, as has been vociferously pointed out during debate over Asbos, is that their breach can, and often does, lead to prison anyway. The public does not believe that sentence inflation – whereby the courts have for some years been minded to opt for the toughest sentences available to them – is a genuine phenomenon.

The truth is that sentence inflation is also happening in the community sentencing of children. So a crime that might once have attracted a straightforward community penalty might now have an intensive supervision and surveillance programme attached, with counterproductively harsh and easily broken strictures part of the deal. In consequence, the number of young people in custody for breach of community orders is the fastest growing category of young prisoners.

The extensive failure of community orders is perhaps not surprising when one bears in mind that the budget of the Youth Justice Board, which exists with the espoused aim of preventing crime among children and young people, actually spent 70 per cent of its 2006 budget on custody, in a division of resources that runs entirely contrary to its remit. The quality of some of this custody is worth considering, because all the indications are that it can sometimes be very brutal.

A few days ago Anne Owers, the chief inspector of prisons, suggested that one of England's four secure training centres, Oakhill in Milton Keynes, ought to be closed down, at least for a temporary period. Her concern is the prevalent use of force in the facility, which houses about 80 children, and exists, ostensibly, to provide them with education and rehabilitation.

At Oakhill, force was used in the restraint of the children living there on 757 occasions in the last nine months, with the highest level of restraint, requiring three members of staff, one holding the head of the trainee, being used 532 times. That seems to me like a lot of restraint against 80 children, and does not suggest that the institution is coping well in its trainee-staff relations. Yet "criminal children" have been so demonised that there is hardly a ripple of public interest in Owers's warning.

The youngest person ever to have died under restraint in Britain is 15-year-old Gareth Myatt, who lost his life after he had been at Rainsbrook secure training centre for just a few days of a six-month sentence, in 2004. He was asphyxiated by his own vomit, after being held using the now-banned "double-seated embrace technique", which involves three adults holding a child doubled over on the floor, with his head pressed into his groin.

The inquest into his death revealed the chain of events that had led to his restraint. The trouble had started when the boy refused to clean out a sandwich toaster. Staff responded by deciding to confine the child in his room. But in order to make the punishment smart, they started stripping the room of his personal belongings. The boy became violent when they removed a piece of paper from his shelf, which turned out to have been a sheet on which his solicitor had hastily written his mother's new mobile phone number.

This awful series of escalating events reached the public domain because Myatt died. But there is evidence to suggest that much of the use of restraint in children's prisons has its roots in initial refusal to submit to petty discipline. Myatt's mother admits, in that well-worn phrase, that her son was "no angel". Even so, he was incarcerated after his first conviction, which was for assaulting a residential worker at a children's unit. The police had at this point known about Myatt's delinquent behaviour for some years. Interventions aimed at preventing his troublesome behaviour had clearly been going gone badly wrong for some time already. A failed intervention led to his incarceration, and even if the violence that was used in turn against him had not killed him, it is difficult to see how it would have cured him.

What needs to be worked out, in the trumpeting of "early intervention" with children at risk of criminality, is why the kind of intervention that is used so often seems to exacerbate rather than prevent the very behaviour that is being targeted, or to speed up rather than slow down or stop the child's progression to jail.

Most of all, bearing in mind how much violent behaviour teachers now report in schools, and how many schools now house the permanent presence of a police officer, what has to be addressed is why there is so little institutional support between mainstream education and criminal incarceration. Until that gap has been suitably bridged, there doesn't seem to be too much point in throwing money either at DNA databases or a short, sharp shocks. We are hard on children, not soft, in this country, and it really ought to be clear by now that this is making our children hard in their turn.