I suffer the moral panic that I may have planted dreadful seeds in my children's psyches

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The Independent Online
This morning two Herefordshire men are into the first week of a six-month sentence for causing actual bodily harm. Their cases are not anything like unique, not even rare. Between them, while drunk, they had headbutted a policeman, bitten a policeman's thigh and taken a swipe at a Woman Police Constable. They'd done much the same before, often.

One of the men had two massive gold rings on each of his hands. Round his neck were several gold chains, and a gold bracelet burdened a wrist. He had a palid face, and those hard little eyes - simultaneously vacant and vicious - which worry the law-abiding. But would I have spotted him for any sort of monster in the street?

Were these men the stuff of last week's Children and Violence report? Was the drinking, anger and violence the result of childhood experience? If so, in a way, it's rather reassuring. It implies that the present generation of violent people cannot be exceptional, nor our times exceptionally bad. Its logic says that their parents must have been violent, and on and on back into the mists of time.

As a rather tempestuous parent whose childhood knew only kindness I am inclined to dispute the inheritance argument. But equally, I suffer the moral panic that I may have planted dreadful seeds in my children's psyches. So I am drawn to the argument that Something New Ought To Be Done. But then I wearily put the opposite case. I bet social workers have been in and out of these men's homes, and that much more support would have been seen by the taxpayer as throwing good money after bad, just as much less would have seemed social, and moral, carelessness.

I have been impressed by two experienced probation service workers that I met last week. One said that he wasn't keen on violent men being given help with their self-esteem: "God, they've got too much self-esteem already, that's their problem," he said. This implies you'd first have to demolish their iron cockiness before you could tackle what indeed may be a gnawing sense of inferiority.

I teased the other probation officer about being a liberal of the worst kind. He said, sharply, that he was no sort of social worker, but an officer of the court. He disliked the view that violence was rooted in family origins. "People choose", he said, and one heard echoes of the Tory dictum: "Crime is a decision, not a disease." No doubt I have cherry-picked amongst his views. Yet I doubt that the public will accept the non-custodial option which the probation service rightly offers unless his sort of voice is more widely heard.

The facts are, after all, not cheering. Non-custodial punishment has a recidivism rate close to that of the custodial option. Oh, but surely "confronting offending behaviour" would be hard work for the violent, and very useful? My informant politely poured scorn on this. He said that the few people who are willing to confront their bad behaviour are already halfway to resolving their problems, and that counselling just bounces off the rest. So why not get them young, and offer support while there's still time? Fine, but modern child-orientated legislation prohibits just the kind of contact which might help most.

As the court and the accused waited for the return of the magistrates with the sentence, a curious scene unfolded. The friends, relatives and children of the men drifted into court and gathered round them, all smiling and apparently as relaxed as if they had been at a christening.

The sentence duly delivered, the smiling continued as the police amiably gathered up their charges. For all concerned it seemed a matter of business as usual, conducted without hard feelings. Knowing well how unlikely improvement is, all parties seemed wary of moralising. Perhaps a gallows humour was indeed the best armour against despair.

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