Let us treat young offenders before they offend

Taken from a speech given by Sarah Curtis, the juvenile and youth court magistrate at the Strategies to Defeat Crime Conference

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Effective programmes for young offenders are based on improving the understanding of young people about the consequences of their behaviour and on giving them practical skills. Young offenders and those at risk of offending must be brought back into the mainstream, whether it is through education, training, employment or a mix of these.

Effective programmes for young offenders are based on improving the understanding of young people about the consequences of their behaviour and on giving them practical skills. Young offenders and those at risk of offending must be brought back into the mainstream, whether it is through education, training, employment or a mix of these.

As far as the small number of most persistent offenders are concerned, general counselling, family counselling and psycho-dynamic therapy may be helpful to young people as individuals, but such counselling does not directly address the issue of anti-social behaviour.

Indeed, putting young offenders into groups which have no clear purpose to address offending behaviour may in fact reinforce their bad behaviour by throwing them together indiscriminately with other delinquents. (Contagion, of course, is one of the sound arguments against imprisoning all but the few young offenders who are violent).

Punishment, however, is important, not just to reassure public opinion but because, if understood and accepted as fair, it enables the young person to move forward. But it has to be understood and accepted, and programmes that only give punishment tend to harden attitudes.

There is at present a contradiction between what politicians and the public say about young offenders and what they say about offenders' parents. On the one hand, it is argued that young people from the age of 10 know the difference between right and wrong and are responsible for their own actions. On the other hand, it is said that parents should exercise control over their children, suggesting that children who offend may be the victims of a lax or deficient upbringing.

There is confusion at the moment between the two sets of expectation. Do we want children to take responsibility for their own actions or do we hold their parents responsible? Suffice it to say that these parents do need help in controlling their children and nearly all of them will accept it voluntarily without a compulsory parenting order, but they need support for longer than the three months of a parenting order.

If we were to abandon what I call "the defeatist fallacy", that nothing can be done about youth crime, what more should this and any government do? Any government must face the fact that providing compensatory education and suitable support and training in the community for everyone costs more money than is now being given. There is quite a lot of "start-up" money available now, but what is needed is "carry-on" money.

It would be more effective, and cheaper, to spend the money we have at an early stage, for example on giving individual support to potentially disruptive primary schoolchildren, than to imprison 12- to 14-year-olds.

Finally, it's a question of changing the rhetoric. I sympathise greatly with the wish for there to be a quick end to juvenile offending, but there really are no quick solutions. It takes years to learn to be a responsible citizen. "Three strikes and you're out" is the stupidest policy possible for reforming young people. The most cursory study of the way children develop should tell our politicians that they don't change overnight.

Politicians, instead of fuelling the understandable anxieties of the public, should publicise their long-term strategy as well as short-term responses, and should explain how complicated any solutions are.

Politicians should take the lead in changing the public perception of what works to stop young people offending. They should explain that only long-term measures will get to the root of offending and prevent it.

It may seem difficult to prevail over the tabloid view of life, but I think people will respond to a hopeful message. I do believe they would be willing to support a realistic and humane way to build a safer society.

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