The lessons of yob's law

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The Independent Online

Violence, intimidation, streets where a child can die an agonising death on his way home from school: this is the picture that has been painted of the North Peckham estate in south London where 10-year-old Damilola Taylor bled to death in a stairwell not quite 18 months ago. The two brothers who were cleared of his murder last week, following the earlier acquittal of their two co-defendants, have been described as the leaders of a teenage gang who terrorised other children. One of the defence lawyers described her own client as "deeply unattractive" while the trial judge, Mr Justice Hooper, characterised the brothers as "young louts, young yobs".

I don't believe every word that has been written about conditions on the estate. The Prime Minister was right, for once, when he warned last week against exaggerating the extent of street crime. Nor do I think it was helpful of The Sun to describe the brothers as "The New Krays", a headline that could only encourage the fantasies of two disturbed teenagers. At the same time, there is something troublingly familiar about the catalogue of thefts, threatening behaviour and sexual assaults described by residents of Peckham last week. In the year after Damilola died, more than 4,000 offences were reported in Southwark, the borough that includes Peckham, in which both victim and perpetrator were under 18. It is part of a growing body of evidence that suggests there is a problem of unsocialised young men up and down the country.

One of the shocking things about the boys acquitted of Damilola's murder is their ages: the brothers are 16 and the other defendants 15 and 17. In the year 2000, one brother was convicted of four offences, the other five. They and the 15-year-old defendant were among a gang of five youths who were accused of sexually assaulting two girls, aged 10 and 12, at a park in Peckham in 1999; the boys were charged with indecent assault, common assault and criminal damage, which they denied, and the case collapsed. All four defendants in the murder trial had dropped out of mainstream schools or been expelled. Their parents were not living together and the fathers had been partially or completely absent for much of their sons' lives. One brother fathered a child at 15.

The officer in charge of the Damilola inquiry, Detective Superintendent Trevor Shepherd, observed that the defendants "were setting their own agendas, their own moral boundaries". And while the case against the boys was flawed from the outset, it is impossible not to sympathise with the detectives. When close family members and the state give up on boys like the accused youths, it is the police who are left to cope with young men who have lost almost every significant affiliation with the community they inhabit. Indeed there are some demographic groups for whom civil society, the structures that should protect the vulnerable and encourage all of us to flourish, has completely broken down.

There is no sense at all, among these young men, of believing in the rights and responsibilities that most of us, fortunately, still take for granted. I am talking about a minority, even though it is a significant one, whose offending behaviour cannot be remedied by the police alone; their job is to identify perpetrators, not the much larger task of regenerating a feeling of citizenship. That is not to deny that detectives are confronting a form of moral corruption which is dangerously contaminating, as the mistakes made in the course of the Damilola investigation reveal: when police officers feel they have to bribe witnesses with promises of financial rewards or reduced sentences for other crimes, the whole system of criminal justice becomes tainted.

Revelations about the impoverished lives of the four young men cleared of Damilola Taylor's murder should be a wake-up call, not an occasion for useless recriminations. We may never know how the little boy died but the investigation has exposed a situation in which groups of teenage boys are left to fend for themselves, exhibiting a masculine swagger that is a cover for non-existent aspirations and chronically low self-esteem. The big question is how to make them feel they have more to gain by becoming part of society than existing on its fringes as semi-outlaws.

Joan Smith's 'Moralities' is published in Penguin paperback this week.