Leading Article: A new alternative to universities of crime

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'I WOULD that there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.' So grumbled the shepherd in The Winter's Tale. His complaint is in tune with the frustration of many people today who are confronted by apparently intractable juvenile crime.

Yesterday, the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on the problem. It offered good and bad news. First, the number of young offenders seems to be falling. Most teenagers who commit petty crime grow out of it. The vast majority who are cautioned do not fall foul of the law again. Their experience demonstrates the importance of keeping teenagers out of the criminal system wherever possible.

The bad news is that most experts seem to agree that there is a small core of persistent offenders that is responsible for multiple crimes. Apparently nothing can persuade these individuals to reform and the authorities do not know how to sort them out. Persistent criminals may comprise no more than a few hundred teenagers, but they grab the headlines and have led to a clamour for change.

There is every sign that Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, is reaching for tried and failed answers, namely the opening of new custodial institutions. However logical this course of action may seem, the history of such policies has been grim, as the MPs' report notes. The experience of a custodial sentence often destroys family relationships, alienates teenagers from all but their criminalised peers and disrupts educations. Bullying and victimisation are rife. Graduates of such confinement are frequently unemployable misfits, expert in little more than law-breaking. The latest experiment - centres opened in the early Eighties offering a military-style short sharp shock treatment - was a failure. It simply produced fitter criminals who could outrun the police.

Borstals and detention centres also failed to reduce recidivism. Young offender institutions, into which they were merged in 1982, have an unhappy history. They offer regimes with strong echoes of the prison system. A number of young inmates have committed suicide, as has been the case in jails.

So what is to be done about the multiple car thieves and incorrigible young burglars? There are no easy answers, but the select committee offers a compromise that must be worth exploring before the Government goes once more down the dead end of creating more custodial institutions. The MPs call for a national agency, which would be responsible for a slightly expanded number of secure units. A persistent offender would, after sentence, be confined to such a unit, but would soon then be subject to a programme of education, training and containment tailor-made to his case and, hopefully, within the community. A supervisor would have the option of releasing a teenager from secure accommodation and also returning him or her if necessary.

Used well, the scheme would protect the community, while not exiling offenders from normal life to a criminals' ghetto. It has already proved successful in the United States. A new agency may be unnecessary, but the MPs' key proposal, offering flexible supervision and control of persistent offenders, offers a germ of hope and should be tried.