Leading Article: Young devils and little angels: the facts

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CASUAL observers could be forgiven for concluding that Britain is being overrun by Artful Dodgers. Concern about juvenile delinquency has become a preoccupation. Reports of 10-year-olds in balaclavas stealing cars confirm our worst fears that children are out of control. Labour and Conservative politicians have enjoyed castigating the apparently soft treatment of young offenders. National heart- searching about a crisis in the new generation followed the murder of James Bulger by two boys.

Yet statistics suggest the extent of the popular misconception. Recorded juvenile crime has, in fact, fallen during the past decade. Official figures published today show a 40 per cent reduction in the number of 10- to 16-year-old boys found guilty or cautioned in 1992 compared with 1981. The number convicted for burglary more than halved. A large increase in drug offences was the only blot on the record.

A tiny core of persistent offenders continues to skew statistics. But only a paedophobe could avoid the conclusion that children are more law-abiding than they used to be. So why are so many adults convinced that young people have become a menace?

There are plenty of theories. The media should take some responsibility for failing to place extreme cases in perspective. Likewise, some politicians profit from scaremongering: children, who have no votes, are easy targets for scapegoating.

But misrepresentation would have little impact were we not so ready to demonise juveniles. That tendency seems to spring from incomprehension of an age-group whose numbers are small compared with the massed ranks of their elders. Fear is compounded by frustration that some young offenders seem beyond the law. As Britain's population ages, it seems to attach more significance to the sins of the few than the virtues of the many.