LEADING ARTICLE: People in glass houses

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The Independent Online
Let's be clear. Sending young offenders to boot camps, or to "glasshouses" - Military Corrective Training Centres - will not work. They might work for soldiers but they will not solve the problem of persistent young criminals. Michael Howard, who has proposed the new regime, would probably expect us to say this. But he knows it is true. Were he at all unsure, the Home Secretary could check with his predecessor Willie Whitelaw.

Lord Whitelaw's "short, sharp shock" centres of the early 1980s were abandoned as a failure. Home Office research showed that militaristic regimes for young offenders had no effect on recidivism rates, and did not reduce the overall level of youth crime.

Michael Howard may point to the United States as an example. But he should be aware of a US National Institute of Justice investigation into the use of boot camps. The study of eight states, published in 1994 by the University of Maryland, showed that recidivism rates were no lower for those leaving such harsh regimes than they were for comparable offenders who had been placed on probation or in standard prisons. And the boot camps with the lowest rates of recidivism were those that had devoted more time to education and less time to marching.

As this evidence shows - and as experts on the penal system have repeatedly told Mr Howard - the real solution to the problem of persistent young offenders lies not in militaristic regimes but in education initiatives and counselling programmes. Research shows that education and training are particularly effective when they lead to a vocational qualification, and when there is the opportunity of continuing the programme after release. Education can offer an alternative to crime for young people with no prospects and little hope. Similarly, drug and alcohol programmes can play an important part in preventing recidivism, as can highly focused work which confronts entrenched attitudes towards crime.

Michael Howard is no fool - he knows all this. Yet still he is determined to press on with the policy. He is playing to the gallery, to Tory right- wingers and the party conference.

The Home Secretary has pursued this strategy before and it has proved disastrous. Take tagging for example. In the three pilot schemes involving electronic monitoring of convicts there has been an 80 per cent failure rate, as offenders have breached curfews and equipment has malfunctioned. Yet Mr Howard refuses to abandon a policy that he thinks will appeal to the law and order lobby. Likewise, he is pressing ahead with opening "child jails" designed to take juvenile offenders, despite the Victorian nature of the initiative and evidence that early incarceration is likely to lead to a lifetime of crime.

It is time that the Home Secretary forsook the temptations of populism and offered us policies that work.