Youth crime demands a mature approach

Ravi Chandiramani
Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Youth Crime Action Plan was being drafted frantically as CYP Now went to press. This keenly anticipated document is the most high-profile piece of children's policy this year.

A constant stream of stories about young people losing their lives to knife crime has created a natural demand for firm answers and urgent action to tackle antisocial behaviour in all its guises. Indeed, the Metropolitan Police this month declared that knife crime has overtaken terrorism as its top priority. The public mood, both influenced by and filtered through the national press, can be summed up by the mantra "enough is enough". It's an understandable reaction that lends itself to calls for tougher sentences and punishment all round.

Addressing the Association of Directors of Children's Services conference last week, children's minister Beverley Hughes said: "Often in government you have to be seen to be speaking to all parts of the constituency - members of the public as well as professional audiences." While the Youth Crime Action Plan was promised seven months ago in The Children's Plan, its arrival has become to some degree an exercise in political face-saving.

The plan contains some necessary punitive as well as preventative measures. In ministerial-speak, it is the "triple-track approach" of tough enforcement, early intervention to address root causes and support to help troubled children and young people to get their lives back on track.

But interventions that point the finger at society rather than individuals don't generally play well with the public. They are harder to grapple with and require more faith in turning things round. In the media, the knife crime problem in particular is producing an immature debate where people are portrayed as either hard-line authoritarians or woolly liberals. This obscures the deeper exploration of answers. Good interventions - from mentoring to therapeutic work to boot-camp-style initiatives - respond to the specific problems of children and young people.

The public mood might be one of impatience and exasperation. But work with the most challenging children continues to require a tough head and a soft heart. Let's hope that, as these interventions bear fruit, the public mood in the months and years to come will change for the better so that the "progressive consensus" is not just a Westminster buzzword but a reality in many communities.

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