Leading Article: How to create more criminals

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT would be wrong if it did not respond to growing concern among the public and police about juvenile offenders who seem able to continue offending with impunity. Anecdotal evidence is reinforced by the publicity given to individual cases, such as that of the 13-year-old who stole 200 cars and the 11-year-old who crashed a car into the garden of an elderly couple and returned the next day to mock them. Most police officers in difficult areas can point to children who continue a life of crime in spite of being regularly caught and charged.

The extent of the problem is difficult to estimate. Home Office statistics show a remarkable drop in indictable offences by males aged 10-17, from 230,700 in 1981 to 149,000 in 1991. This apparently encouraging trend is cited by reformers such as Frances Crook, director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, who wrote in this paper yesterday, as a reason for opposing government plans to make new provision for detaining children as young as 12. Some experts estimate that the number of persistent juvenile offenders who constitute a serious problem is no more than 200-400.

But the statistics may be misleading. Crime has been rising steadily since 1945, but the clear-up rate has been falling. In 1991 more than two-thirds of all crimes remained unsolved. It is not unreasonable to assume on the basis of everyday experience that a significant and probably growing proportion of those crimes are committed by juveniles.

A more cogent argument against new forms of detention is that every form tried up to now has been shown to have either no effect or negative effects. Detention centres become 'universities of crime', whose graduates are more likely than ever to embark on crime as a career. They actually contribute to increasing crime. Of the children held in secure units in the Seventies, about 70 per cent were reconvicted within a year of release. The 'short, sharp shock' for juvenile offenders, introduced by the Conservatives with much fanfare soon after they were elected in 1979, turned out to be a disaster and was soon abandoned. Even where more constructive attempts have been made at combining detention with retraining and rehabilitation, the effects have been limited. Offenders tend to relapse into their old ways as soon as they return to their familiar environments.

Better results have been achieved by various forms of supervision and retraining within the community because they help young offenders to build up new habits within normal society. They do not assuage the public's desire to inflict punishment and they may not adequately protect the public against further offences, but over the longer term they offer more promise of progress.

The sources of juvenile crime are too varied to respond to simple solutions. They include boredom, poverty, unemployment, bad education, mental illness and the breakdown of family and social structures. An ideal approach would combine attacks on all these factors. Detention is obviously unavoidable for criminals of any age who constitute a serious danger to society, but Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, will have to find a stronger case than has been made so far if he wants to show that spending money on new forms of detention will in fact provide the public with better protection against crime.