Leading Article: Prison is not the place for children

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The Independent Online

It takes bravery in the current climate of fear regarding youth crime to advocate raising the age of criminal responsibility to cut the number of children appearing in the courts. There is huge public pressure to increase the punitive as opposed to the rehabilitative element in the treatment of young offenders and to impose penalties on younger and younger children. The latest figures, showing that children under 10 committed more than 2,800 offences last year, will no doubt fuel a clamour for the age of criminal responsibility to be lowered further still.

But if the call by the chair of the Criminal Bar Association to increase the age at which children go to trial falls by the wayside, it will be a pity, for our current approaching is not working. It is not especially "soft" either. With one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in western Europe, we put more children behind bars than any of our continental neighbours.

How to get out of this spiral? First, we must get away from the idea that omitting to send children to prison means letting them off. Freeing them to go back to their destructive ways would indeed be a dereliction of responsibility. Rather, we could learn more from new and more interventionist approaches to youth crime adopted in Europe. We don't have to go abroad to Holland and Denmark to see the results. In East Renfrewshire, in Scotland, a pilot project based on Scandinavian models has also had success in cutting youth crime.

All these countries' approaches differ. But they share a determination to keep teenagers out of court through early intervention and mentoring by co-ordinated teams of police and social workers tasked with drawing up workable goals for each individual. The Government has made steps towards spreading these practices in Britain. The decision to set up the Youth Justice Board in 1998 to help prevent young people offending was a particularly welcome one.

But the board's success has been limited so far, and overall it is hard to see more preventative approaches towards youth crime being adopted in Britain, not only because public opinion remains suspicious of them, but because the social services, on which these new approaches partly depend for their success, are themselves demoralised and in some disarray.

Keeping children out of court, therefore, also requires an overhaul of our battered social services. That might be expensive and thus hard to sell to voters. But the alternative to reform is to put more and more children through the courts and into detention centres from which they all too often emerge unreformed and ready to re-offend.