Leading article: Yes, catch them young - as a first step

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In an ideal world all political statements about crime and punishment, including Jack Straw's yesterday, should carry a health warning. As follows. Her Majesty's Home Secretary (and his Shadow) warn that the causes of crime are multiple, a compound of opportunity, attitude, demography, penal regime, detective capacity, background, upbringing, and the proximity of Panda cars. No single lever of public policy works; neither jail nor police numbers, nor even boom conditions and more jobs. Being tough on crime, and on the causes of crime, is meritorious, but the answers never come easy, and rarely cheap.

Still, Mr Straw is a politician, and must have his six points on youth crime, so that people can judge whether he means it. To his credit, there was at least some recognition of implied cost, and an acknowledgement that reform takes time. But it was not the six points that caught the headlines; after all, we have heard them before, and Mr Straw needs to make his point more forcefully than mere repetition of Labour's programme will allow. So he went for a fresh commitment that is sure to grab people's attention: reduction of the age of criminal responsibility. Unfortunately, the theme, though fascinating, is largely irrelevant to the main issue of reducing youth crime, and preventing young criminals from turning into lifelong reprobates.

Mr Straw promised to reverse the way that, at present, the prosecution in serious cases involving a child of more than 10 but less than 13 has to prove the child's capacity to distinguish right and wrong. His proposal is commonsensical, in that we all know most 10-year-olds are capable of knowing that stealing, assaulting, damaging and so on are wrong. The change also sits on all fours with Labour's revisionist stance on the moral responsibilities of schools, parents, and society generally. But this change is not going to increase the number of young offenders convicted; nor (much more important) will it help to prevent them offending again (and again, and again).

The facts of youth crime are worth rehearsing, if only to establish why Mr Straw is right to make a song and dance about the failures of policy in this area. The social facts also explain why he is on dangerous territory if he fails to distinguish the mass of petty offences and nuisances caused by young people which are - fatalistic though this sounds - a probably inevitable part of their adolescence, and the small number of serious persistent offenders. A quarter of all known offenders (in Britain) are under 18 - they account for some seven million recorded offences a year, a drop in the ocean of what the public recognises as crime, which itself is a mixture of illegal actions and merely offensive behaviour. A large proportion of young offenders flit in and out of the youth justice system. By the time they reach adulthood most have got it out of their system. But a fraction become persistent troublemakers; they go on to form the hard core of virtually irredeemable adult offenders. The propensity of young people to offend has probably not grown in recent years, but the the core of persistent offenders may well have done. Jack Straw is right to focus on the process of cautioning and the need to mobilise resources to target the children who are in danger of reoffending.

Little of that is news. Youth crime worried Merlyn Rees, the last Labour Home Secretary. His successors, from Willie Whitelaw on, have experimented widely; they have generally failed to co-ordinate policies with their Cabinet colleagues responsible for social services budgets, local councils and employment. The result gives Mr Straw his opportunity to make political capital. And well he might. Tough Michael Howard has failed to increase the number of secure units for those children who do need to be locked up.

Yet there is less to the Straw package than meets the eye. His Community Safety Order, unveiled last year, is a useful augmentation of the powers available to local authorities to deal with nuisance neighbours: there are, within most jurisdictions, a tiny number of dysfunctional families who for the community's sake may have to be harried and moved on. As for "better parenting", there is a danger that the rhetoric will overwhelm social reality. Fining poor families or locking parents up is unlikely to do much for parental responsibility. Both Home Secretary and Shadow could usefully study the Scottish Children's Hearings System, wherein parents stand to be fined if they fail to attend. But the nature of the hearings in Scotland (informal and speedy and local) brings them within better reach of all but the most alienated parents.

About the proposed "root and branch" reform of the youth courts, Mr Straw has least to say. That is evidently because he has got a lot of thinking yet to do. Making it easier to label 10-year-olds as criminals does not quite fit with his wish to stop youth courts mimicking the adversarial nature of adult courts.

Mr Straw has proved himself adept at playing the symbolic politics of crime, and over recent months has done his party no end of electoral favours. On the way he has come up with some sensible proposals. But crime in modern British society is not going to be solved by a mere appeal to Middle-England instincts. The people Mr Straw meets on the streets are impatient with crime. But wanting to help them - and win their votes - should never blind him to the essentially long-haul, expensive and incremental character of the task.

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