Joe, 15: 'I took violence more seriously than others. I was out to hurt'
In the past few years I've been in five care homes. It's because I'm always in trouble and they can't deal with me. So that's what "care" means to me: moving about.
I used to live with my dad. He doesn't really care. When I was in trouble and had to go home, I'd stand at the door not wanting to ring the bell. Ding-dong. He'd throw down the keys and it was like getting hit by a bomb. Then I'd rush into the bedroom quick and I'd think, "Don't come in, don't come in." But he always came in and I'd get the shit knocked out of me. I got used to it after a while. It was: here we go again.
I've been in so much trouble it's unreal. GBH, ABH, knives, assault, public disorder... most of my arrests are for fighting. I mean, it's impossible to catch me for shoplifting. A security guard did once try to grab me, he hit me. I went back with all my mates from the estate and we really beat him up. I said to him: "That's what you get when you play with big boys." He must have been pissed off, a big security guard lying on the floor because he's been beaten up by a load of 12-year-olds.
A lot of the fighting I do is caused by boredom. And the excitement of being in a gang. When I was at primary school we waited at the gates of another school with the parents and at 3.30pm they opened the gates and we ran in and battered the kids. I took it more seriously than the others; I was out to hurt them more. Probably it came from watching films: you see it on a film and you want to do it yourself.
It's impossible for the government to change things unless they stick officers on every street corner and we know they can't do that. They can't stop people getting beaten up as they'd be beaten up themselves, and back-up wouldn't arrive in time. It might help if there was more to do. If you're playing basketball or football, you're not out fighting, are you?
Germain, 18: 'My first arrest was for stealing a tin of SMA Gold baby milk'
I was a bright kid in primary school and didn't get into any trouble, but I had an unlucky start with my family. My dad went off, my mother had a new husband and I had lots of little brothers and sisters. From the ages of about seven to 10 there were fights all the time. My mother, my stepfather, my brother, me. The police used to come, sometimes three times a day. I'd cry myself to sleep every night, covered in blood, listening to the rats. My mother was running around a lot, I don't judge her for this. I think she was into class As [drugs]. So she'd go off for two weeks, no food in the house. I was in charge, changing nappies, getting kids to school. My first arrest was for stealing a tin of SMA Gold baby milk.
At secondary school, I was arrested almost every day. I started with the Bob Marley [marijuana] and began running away. I was in a gang and we'd go everywhere, down to the south coast, robbing shops, people on buses. Sometimes just a few of us, sometimes 30. I was a gang leader and if anyone attacked a gang member... well, I remember this kid. I was told he was 19 but I beat him up really bad; he was in hospital. When I looked at him I saw he was just 16 or 17.
I don't carry a knife now but I still sleep with one under my pillow. But forget the robberies, the shoplifting, the fights – the worst thing I did was this kidnapping. I was feeling bored, no, angry, and there was this kid... well, what I did was sick and gruesome and I don't want to talk about it any more.
I was saved by an organisation called Kids Company where I go and they listen to me and help me. They're like my family. That's what's worked for me. Not the law, not the police, who just want to lock you up. I haven't committed a crime for two years and it's because of the support I've had.
Helen, 17: 'I was so lonely and bored I couldn't stand it'
I come from an estate in the Midlands where everyone's related. I hung around with my generation, who were all older than me. We were close, but there was infighting between the families: once, my Dad got stabbed for beating up the family that beat up my brother. '
Dad couldn't work because of an industrial accident and for years money was tight because we were waiting for the compensation. When I was young my parents were on base [strong amphetamines]; there were loads of parties downstairs. Then someone died on coke and the parties stopped.
My first arrest was when some bigger kids hot-wired a car. I had to pretend I'd been driving it because I was 12 and wouldn't go to jail. After that, because I was small and skinny, they used me for burglaries – I'd fit through top windows.
I did really well at school until the end of term, when we had time off for exams. I was so lonely and bored I couldn't stand it. I started a relationship with a boy who used heroin and began to smoke it myself. I loved it. Straight to oblivion. I was so sick of my parents hassling me to get a job, so sick of worrying my boyfriend would cheat on me. I smoked every day for three days and after that the rattle [withdrawal symptoms] was so bad I'd commit any crime to get money for more. I worked at McDonald's and stole from the till; I scared people at cash machines; when my Dad's compensation came through I used his bank card to gradually steal about £20,000 before he realised; the worst crime was, when an old lady fell over bleeding in the street, I ran off with her purse.
I'm in rehab now and I feel so bad about everything I did, so guilty about hurting my parents. Looking back, I think a bit of drugs education might have helped. If I'd known more...
Most of our crime was controlled by an older lad. We were scared of him and all did exactly what he said, even though he was grassing us up to the police. Because he grassed, the police gave him an easy ride, although he was really at the root of it. The police were useless on our estate, there was no point them being there, same goes for the YOT [Youth Offending Teams] worker, the Asbo, everything.
I was one of a huge gang of kids on the estate and the path to crime for us was definitely not having anything else to do; the one way the government could cut down on drug use and street crime would be giving us something else do to.
Steffi, 15: 'If you look in a certain way, that could be your life ended'
I live in south London. My family's OK, that's not the problem, the problem is the other people in our neighbourhood. I've been robbed and beaten up so many times.
I first smoked weed when I was 11. It made me sick. I've smoked it every day since. They found weed on me when I was 13 and I was excluded from school. It was their zero-tolerance policy. But they didn't find me another school.
I've only robbed one person, when I was 13. My parents don't have any money to buy me clothes or a phone and there was this girl with a nice phone, money, jewellery. So I went up to her and patted her down and took her phone. Afterwards I felt quite bad. I wanted to give it back. I'm a nice girl. But I did do one other thing which wasn't very nice. I was a bit depressed at the time and I saw this young girl and thought, "She looks so happy, she's rich, she's got everything she wants, she's still in school." I wanted just to destroy her face a little bit and I really punched her; her face was bad.
On the streets these days everyone's a challenger. I usually carry a knife because if you look at a certain person in a certain way, that could be your life ended. If you show fear, if you don't act hard, they'll take advantage of you. It's all about respect. Recently a gang of black kids on the bus took my phone and really beat me up. All because I was sitting by myself, a little black girl with my hair straightened, listening to my music and they thought, "She looks innocent, she looks like a victim."
As for the law, I don't think people can make laws for kids unless they get involved with us. If there was a choice of activities I'd follow something else but there's only one activity, and that's drugs, so I followed it.
To be honest, I am a bored young woman but I have a lively mind. I like to dance, I'm very artistic and I like poetry, art; I love drawing, music, writing songs. But I've been excluded from school so how am I ever going to learn the big words the government uses so I can talk to them?
Interviews by Mark Johnson