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Rod Morgan: They smoke, drink and behave badly. Will we never learn?

It is no wonder our children are drawn to cannabis and petty crime when we so demonise them

There may be one aspect of what it means to be English about which we can all agree. We love our pets, but don't much like our children. We say we love them, but prefer to have as little to do with them as possible. If we are wealthy we send them off to boarding school as soon as they are capable of answering back, and if we are not wealthy we separate ourselves from them by working the longest hours in Western Europe or by endlessly watching television. We don't talk to, eat with or spend time with them to the degree that our European neighbours do.

The conclusion from the Unicef report that prompted such public hand-wringing when published in the spring, and from other comparative data, is clear. Despite our relative wealth, our young people come out worst among a score of European countries on five out of six dimensions of well-being. The exception, health and safety, where we stand roughly midway down the list, represents no great achievement. It is substantially the consequence of our not allowing our children to go out of the house, or to do anything away from home unaccompanied by an adult until they are teenagers, at which point many of them unsurprisingly go wild, precociously engaging in smoking, binge-drinking, use of illicit drugs and unprotected sex. Whereupon we demonise them in the media, harass them with punitive legislation, and lock up more of them than anywhere else in Western Europe.

This picture is a caricature, but only just. The trend is clear. We are criminalising more and more children and young people – an increase of 26 per cent between 2002 and 2006 – in a period when all the evidence suggests that the incidence of youth offending fell. This is primarily what prompted me to resign as chair of the Youth Justice Board in February. I could not get a single Home Office minister to do anything to reverse a trend that will not reduce the likelihood of citizens being victimised and results in a grotesque waste of scarce public resources. Moreover, after the dreadful death of Rhys Jones in Liverpool, and the deaths of other juveniles apparently at the hands of their peers this year, there is a real risk that this public abuse of our children will get worse.

I am not saying that there aren't some young people whose crimes are so grave they must be taken out of circulation. Of course there are. Gun- and knife-related gang violence is so serious in some neighbourhoods that the solutions must include the incarceration of a few individuals. But there are not twice as many such children and young people as there were 15 years ago, which is the scale of the increased numbers in penal custody. Nor am I saying that children and young people must not be made to answer for their anti-social and criminal behaviour. They must. But that is not best achieved by criminalising them for minor offences, or by adults distancing themselves from them through fear, dislike or lack of appreciation, or by dismissing kids as young as 11 or 12 as "yobs". During my time in Whitehall, I am ashamed to say, that terminology appeared in a Home Office ministerial press release when government policy was ostensibly the promotion of respect.

What to do? I doubt it will cut much ice in contemporary British politics to go on about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child or argue in favour of raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to, say, 14, the average threshold in the rest of Western Europe. I am sure there are commentators who would like to reduce our age of criminal responsibility. What might better succeed, therefore, would be a concerted campaign to reduce the degree to which we resort to the criminalisation of children. And that might be achieved administratively, without resort to legislation.

The biggest driver of child and youth criminalisation is the Home Office "offences brought to justice" (OBTJ) target from the last general election. It is the Government's proud boast that we're well ahead of target, 1.25 million OBTJs by next spring. But how is the figure being achieved? Not by prosecuting and convicting many more serious offenders, whose detection requires serious investment of police resources. On the contrary. The overall number of convictions in court has remained more or less constant. The big increase has almost entirely been achieved by handing out on-the-spot fines and issuing cautions for relatively minor offences. Children and young people, the low-hanging fruit that it's easy for the police to pick, account for a good deal of the increase, and this includes their simple possession of cannabis. Bizarrely, the police have the discretion to ignore an 18-year-old smoking a joint but must arrest a 17-year-old or younger. If we're going to retain an OBTJ target, it must be based on an assessment of seriousness. Sir Ronnie Flanagan's review has something to say about this: the police should generally not be drawn in to deal with school playground-type offences.

Second, serious consideration should be given to Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss's proposals for filtering out cases involving children whose welfare needs (mental health, family neglect and so on) are readily apparent. The Youth Court either needs the power to adjourn proceedings and refer the matter to social services, or we need a local filtering arrangement to ensure that cases that should never go down the criminal justice route are diverted.

Third, we must restore a semblance of discretion to the police so that minor matters involving young children are dealt with more speedily, cheaply and effectively in situ and don't clutter up our court lists and youth offending team caseloads. If neighbourhood policing is to mean anything, it must involve that. We need to do this because, as Lesley McAra and Susan McVeigh's largest cohort study of young people ever undertaken in the UK shows, criminalising children, all other things being equal, increases rather than reduces the likelihood of their further offending.

Rod Morgan is Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Bristol and visiting professor at the London School of Economics

Further reading: McAra and McVeigh "The Impact of System Contact on Patterns of Desistance From Offending" (European Journal of Criminology Vol 4, 2007)