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The solutions: What's to be done?

Is there a quick fix to the problem of street crime – or even a slow one? Youth justice expert Rod Morgan takes on the gangs

Sunday 13 April 2008 00:00 BST

Every week we learn of a street outrage involving young people. The brutal kicking to death of a student because she "looked different". A teenager fatally knifed in an exchange said to involve no more than "messing about". A youth gunned down because he showed insufficient "respect". An older person savagely murdered because he dared to remonstrate with youths gratuitously damaging his property. What can we, collectively, do about events such as these?

Every week we learn of a street outrage involving young people. The brutal kicking to death of a student because she "looked different". A teenager fatally knifed in an exchange said to involve no more than "messing about". A youth gunned down because he showed insufficient "respect". An older person savagely murdered because he dared to remonstrate with youths gratuitously damaging his property. What can we, collectively, do about events such as these?

Before answering that question, consider a few facts: the volume of crimes such as burglaries and thefts of and from cars has fallen significantly since the mid-1990s, including that for which young people are responsible. Murders remain rare. But rates for certain crimes, some serious (robbery) and some less serious (behaviour in public places widely considered threatening), have not declined.

These "signal" crimes greatly trouble us, including the young, who are more often the victims than adults. Simple reasons for this disparate proportion of victimhood include the fact that older people are less inclined to go out after dark, and that young people are more likely to seek the comfort of peer groups or to carry weapons.

Most of these peer groups don't deserve the emotive and threatening title of "gang": they're not that structured, permanent or focused around criminal or anti-social behaviour. But in some, mostly urban, inner-city areas they are. And it is in these areas that certain toxic, pre-disposing, social conditions flourish: large estates where there is extensive child poverty; where communal facilities are lacking; where a sense of hopelessness thrives; where large secondary schools fail to engage their pupils; where unemployment or low-paid underemployment is the norm; where drugs are cheaper than they've ever been; and where crime is often a conspicuous route to acquisition of the cornucopia of consumer goods that the rest of us take for granted and flaunt.

It's tempting to rant about the socio-economic divides that blight this country and press the Government to address these rifts. But that is unlikely to bring about the swift, effective action against street crime that most of us want. So, let's settle on some principles and practical propositions.

Nothing will be solved by adopting more Draconian punishments. We've got them already, and they're not proving enough of a deterrent. Youngsters convicted of murder receive life sentences – and a "life sentence" today is a far longer sentence than would have been the case 10 or 20 years ago. Our prisons and young-offender institutions are bursting at the seams. We send more young people to custody than any other Western European country.

The Government should resist knee-jerk reactions. I find it encouraging that the new ministerial "law and order" team, the Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, have not responded to each serious assault or murder highlighted by the media, as did Smith's predecessor John Reid, with immediate proposals for criminalising more behaviour (such as being a member of a gang) or introducing increased statutory minimum sentences (for carrying a gun or knife, for example).

The police and the courts have all the powers they require. What is needed now is rather greater scope for the police to use their professional judgement and discretion. The judiciary also needs to be more engaged in how its decisions are executed. Why? Because we are locking up twice the number of young people we were 15 years ago, and there are surely not twice as many manifestly dangerous youngsters in 2008 as there were in 1993.

Our overstretched custodial system is not protecting us in the long term. On the contrary, it is turning out worse offenders of whom we should be fearful. We need to shift our penal focus, budgets and centre of gravity from custody to the community.

Many of the young offenders subject to community court orders are not getting the attention that their risk of re-offending and harm merits. This is because the courts 'are faced with thousands of kids who should never have come before them and youth-offending teams are encumbered with ever-growing case loads. Many of these young offenders could have been dealt with by the police prior to their cases coming before the court. We need to reward the police for working preventively with parents through the use of informal warnings and by encouraging youths restoratively to make good whatever harm they have caused. This is what neighbourhood policing should be about. Adolescents who are regularly getting out of their heads in public places tend to be well known locally, as are their sources of supply, and need early intervention, as do their parents and suppliers. If they don't respond to warnings and offers of support, then, yes, there is a place for Parenting Orders and Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (Asbos).

But most parents of out-of-control teenagers aren't thumbing their noses at authority; they're desperate for assistance. There are excellent voluntary mentoring and parental support schemes around the country. But we need many more.

Very encouraging is the recognition by Ed Balls at the Department for Children, School and Families that early intervention is key. But his department needs to go much further than the recently announced Youth Action Plan. Youth crime prevention has more to do with schools and training scheme policies than anything the youth court does. We have to staff, equip and incentivise schools better to hang on to those young people who are not naturally heading towards five GCSEs. Excluding kids from school increases their likelihood of offending two- to three-fold.

What of those already involved in crime? We need to engage with those young people in gangs wielding guns and knives. We need to do it on their territory, developing our own imaginative schemes (as has been done in Chicago and Los Angeles) with outreach workers who come from, and understand, the streets. Hand-wringing in, and issuing edicts from, Whitehall offices will achieve precious little. The development of genuine, hands-on community courts will help. But there aren't any quick fixes.

Rod Morgan is professor of criminal justice at the University of Bristol, and formerly chairman of the Youth Justice Board and HM Chief Inspector of Probation

What's the big idea?

Three more experts reveal their techniques for tackling offenders...

The Pull-Your-Socks-Up Man

Ray Lewis, 45, is founder and head of the education and leadership association Eastside Young Leaders' Academy (EYLA) in east London, which works with black boys aged eight to 18 at risk of social exclusion

EYLA is about prevention. It is based on my work as a prison governor, where I noted the story of the young men was pretty well always the same – problems in schools, usually single-parent household or parenting that lacked discipline, and children who led unstructured lives.

We like to take boys young so we can steer them before adolescence kicks in. Boys are referred for anything from disruption at school or sexualised behaviour to extreme violence. They are with us three or four evenings a week, Saturday morning and through the holidays, and we provide educational support and mentoring. We insist on clear structures and strict discipline. We teach them about their culture, good manners, things that add to their commitment.

I believe that after 13 or 14, it is too late. The government can't do much, apart from build big prisons and put more police on the street. What we can do is look at ways in which we can prevent the next generation from falling off the clifftop. The government has tried with things such as targeting families as young as possible, but it is very difficult to replace or replenish family life. The longer term is about the restoration of communities and family life, and the founding of organisations that shape the values of young people. We blame the Government for too much. What we need is incubating communities that solve their own problems.

Parents have to rediscover what it means to carry the responsibility of children. We have fostered a culture of individualism, then we wonder why it doesn't work. We encourage people to be greedy and wonder why we have the most feared teenagers in the world. It is because we have let them run rampant for so long. We got rid of the church and our uniformed organisations, the family is decimated – all the mediating forces have disappeared. We blame the parents but we are all responsible.

The Learn-From-My-Mistakes Man

Mark Johnson, 37, is a former young offender. He is a special adviser to the Prince's Trust and has written an autobiography, Wasted

I was eight when I first got drunk. I was already seeing a psychiatrist for being violent at school. My dad was a violent alcoholic, my mother was probably unstable, and it doesn't take a scientist to work out what was to follow. In my twenties I was trapped in a cycle of crime and drugs. I was living in doorways, mugging for money.

The people who were there for me were my peers. But along with accepting their friendship came an escalation in violence and drugs. It is such a logical path.

The answer is love and being cared for. Young people respond to it. What saved me from the streets was a community action team worker called Sean Evans who went the extra mile with me. He went behind bins to find me. He got me into a detox centre and broke the rules to keep me there. This gave me the time to sit down with trained therapists and have all these deluded thoughts peeled away.

We need to understand the problem. I call the senior policy makers "the haves". They have grown up with balance, with the insulation of a moral code, probably with two parents. They are making decisions on the basis of their own make-up for a group of people they know nothing about. There are so many circumstances behind youth crime. Talk to these young people and they'll say they have a significant adult missing; they never got involved in school; they carry knives for protection because they're scared. They are second-generation on benefits. Their view of society is warped.

These children need a significant adult in their lives. They need to be taught fundamental principles of interacting with one another in a healthy way; the difference between right and wrong; the consequences of behaviour.

We need to look at projects such as Kid's Company in south London, which acts as a family, and the work of Dame Anna Hassan in east London, the head teacher who made her pupils feel safe in a school where over 70 per cent speak English as a second language. Their work needs to be replicated. These people need to be consulted. We need to attach our youths back into society and we will do that by caring.

'Wasted', by Mark Johnson, is published by Sphere (£6.99)

The Play-Them -At-Their-Own-Game Man

Peter Roberts, 65, lives in Streetly, Sutton Coldfield, and is chairman of West Midlands Neighbourhood Watch County Association

Antisocial behaviour is a big problem here. This is quite an affluent area and the kids go out on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday, get legless and cause trouble. Recently, they threw a slab through a lady's window – she was 80-odd – and they smash fences. There have been one or two youngsters beaten up, a couple of kids mugged for their iPods. Sometimes there are 100-plus of them, aged from 12 up; they drink and go on the rampage. '

A good scheme has been started by a woman on a council estate in the West Midlands where six adults go out together in fluorescent jackets, and talk the kids out of causing trouble and move them on. They usually have a police officer or police community support officer with them – and it works.

One road near here has problems every summer with youths hanging around, sitting on the walls. Now when it happens, all the neighbours congregate in that garden and the kids move on. The neighbours will follow them and loiter nearby, and it is the kids who feel intimidated and clear off.

In another case, where there was a problem with youths hanging round the shops, local people clubbed together and bought a Mosquito device, which transmits noise on a frequency that is uncomfortable for teenagers.

In the long term, the answer is to come down hard on the parents. They should make them more responsible for their kids' behaviour, take them to court. You can point the finger at the licensing laws but it is often the parents who buy alcohol for the children. We have proved that – we have seen them give alcohol to their children and say, "See you later."

These are well-to-do parents, and they don't seem to care what their kids are doing, as long as they're not bothering them. I've asked parents, "Do you know what your child is up to?" but they deny they're up to anything. I showed one man a picture of his son throwing snowballs at old people and he said, "They must have done something to him."

Some people might say this is petty crime and it doesn't matter, but they should talk to the victims. They are nearly all elderly people and they are terrified.


'Is it OK if this happened to your sister?'

Lydia Sorenson, 29, is a senior project worker with NCH, the children's charity, in east London. She works intensively with families in which there has been a problem with antisocial behaviour

The young people in the families I work with have usually exhibited criminal activity – fighting in the street, vandalism, selling drugs. We challenge their behaviour by pointing out the consequences – which may be prison or their family losing their home – while supporting them and the family.

There are many causes behind the behaviour: environmental, financial, lack of education, parents not knowing how to parent. Poverty is a big issue. These homes will probably not have the basics, and these children start their lives in a bleak way. The parents can't provide things the children want and the children become vulnerable to negative peers.

I spend up to nine hours a week with each family. We give them parenting strategies which we expect them to implement, and I visit the home regularly. I'm a combination of parent, social worker and police officer.

If I arrive late in the morning the young person may still be in bed. It may be that the parent hasn't got them up, or they have tried and the child has told them to get lost. I give the parent strategies. Instead of screaming, we might coax them up – make them a cup of tea but say they have to get up to have it. It's basic, but it works.

The child may be excluded from mainstream school but they should still be attending an educational facility, and I walk there with them. On the way we talk about problems that may have happened, what they could have done differently, talk about issues around their anger, or just chat about things they can't tell to other people. A lot of my work is about building trust.

If any young person I'm working with commits an offence, I take it personally. The parents often make excuses but I never do. I will tell them how I see it – is it OK if this happened to your sister or grandmother? I've only had one young person ever say, "I don't care." Usually, they are embarrassed and find it difficult to re-engage with me. It is important to me to know I am working with someone with a conscience.

I see parents doing what they think is best, and it might be screaming and shouting, or hitting their child. We have to say you can't do it, it's not acceptable.

Doing this every day can be frustrating. But when the child achieves something, I feel really proud. It may be small, it may be getting into trouble less, or getting some sort of an education, but the impact on that person's life is huge. '

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