Crime rates are falling throughout Britain, yet the number of children being prosecuted just keeps on rising. Why are we turning so many young people into criminals?
"I admit that I recklessly ripped Linda's bra strap, causing damage." Fourteen-year-old Musa writes the sentence out painstakingly, signs it and hands it to his solicitor. The atmosphere in the dingy side room at Brent Youth Court is tense: Musa is awaiting a hearing on charges of criminal damage. His offence was to rip the lacy strap of a family friend's £20 bra accidentally during an altercation.
It would be laughable if it weren't so serious. Musa has not had an easy childhood – his father was a drug addict; his parents had an acrimonious divorce. He suffers anxiety attacks, and was crying with worry before coming to court, explains his mother. That's why he decided to confess rather than plead not guilty; anything to avoid the long and stressful wait for another court appearance. He'll get a reprimand, which stays on his police file for life, but as long as he doesn't get arrested again, that will be the end of it. If he does, no matter how small the incident, he'll get his final warning before a mandatory court appearance. "I do worry that something else will happen," she says. "I've told him: 'Now you know to watch yourself. The smallest thing and you could end up in big trouble.'"
Musa had never been arrested before. He did not injure anyone, and he did not steal anything. In fact, the woman whose bra strap he ripped still stops and chats to Musa's mother in the street. In a more innocent age, he might have been grounded at home, or perhaps ticked off informally by a policeman. But in 21st-century Britain, the behaviour of children – or, more accurately, of working-class children such as Musa – is a criminal matter. As his youth worker observes wryly after we leave the court: "The attitude towards young people seems to be: get them!"
Just for Kids Law, which represents Musa, spends much of its time dealing with cases as petty as his: a 15-year-old arrested for carrying a toy gun home from the shop in a plastic bag; a 12-year-old put through the courts because his friend gave him a copy of the school master key. Another 15-year-old who was caught with a mobile phone that his adult friend had stolen had to make five court appearances, one of which was at an adult court alongside a man being given bail for child pornography offences.
"We are teaching these kids a complete lack of respect for the adult world, because we are treating them so frequently with no respect," says Shauneen Lambe, director of Just for Kids Law. "Police will bang them up against walls as they might with prolific adult offenders. We had one child who was chased down the road with no shoes on until he wore through his socks, and then beaten by the police. What is the point of criminalising all of our young people, so that when they grow up they can't even get a job in the Post Office because they've all got criminal records?"
Crime rates have fallen drastically in Britain over the past ten years, but the number of children going through the criminal justice system just keeps on growing: it stands at 210,000 annually, up from 185,000 in the mid-1990s. In the past, most of those who come into contact with the system were given cautions. Now, half are prosecuted. With more than 3,000 under-18s in prison and juvenile detention centres bursting at the seams, Britain has one of the most punitive youth criminal justice systems of any democratic country.
Rod Morgan, chair of the Youth Justice Board, the government body that oversees the juvenile system in England and Wales, is "very preoccupied" with the situation, which he says needs "urgent attention". He has been lobbying the Home Office, but his criticisms are falling on deaf ears. "There is a good deal of political pressure to stick with the tough talk," he says. "The government has nailed its colours to the mast." John Reid has not met with Morgan since becoming Home Secretary; with terrorists to catch and immigrants to deport, child welfare seems low on his list of priorities.
Anxiety about the behaviour of young people is nothing new. According to Barry Goldson, professor of criminology at Liverpool University, children have always occupied an uneasy place in British culture. "The Jamie Bulger case was a very significant turning point in our view of young people – it came to represent all kinds of concerns about childhood being in crisis, and the moral health of the nation," he says. "But if you look deeper, you see that children have a troubled role in the British psyche. In continental Europe, young people are welcome to join in adult social life; they fit comfortably into society. That is not the case here."
Under new Labour, however, this anxiety has become institutional. Amid the rhetoric of "tackling social exclusion", ever greater emphasis has been placed upon early intervention in the lives of "problem" children. As a result of reforms introduced since 1997, the criminal justice system deals with young people more punitively than it does with adults. The police have no discretion in dealing with juvenile cases: an adult who offends can be cautioned an indefinite number of times; a child is allowed only two reprimands (the juvenile equivalent of a caution) before prosecution. If an adult is caught with cannabis, he or she will be dealt with informally; a child committing the same offence will be arrested. In effect, children are expected to be better behaved and more responsible than their parents.
The imbalance has been compounded by the introduction of government targets for "offences brought to justice". The police are expected to bring 1.25 million cases to justice every year. So far they are well ahead of their target – and not because the number of adult convictions has increased. Children are easy to catch, because their crimes are generally committed in the streets and other public places, and their cases are easy to process. Morgan says that, for the police, arresting children is like "picking low-hanging fruit".
I talked to several teenagers in Kent, London and Essex and all of them were used to being stopped and searched by the police. "I can't remember how many times it has happened. It started when I was about 14," said one 16-year-old. "They make you empty your pockets. They check to see if your phone is stolen. Sometimes they're polite, but sometimes they're pretty rough. Of course you get pissed off, but what are you going to do? You can't make a fuss because you'll get nicked." Another boy told me that a common where teenagers congregate in his town is constantly monitored by policemen in plain clothes. "They come over and search us all the time. We made the front page of the paper when we left a few beer bottles lying on the grass." The Home Office compiles exhaustive statistics on the ethnicity of people who are stopped and searched, but it does not keep any record of the number of children.
Politics of prison
So, will this new punitiveness create a generation of well-behaved, law-abiding citizens? The evidence is that it is likely to have quite the reverse effect. The most wide-ranging study of the effectiveness of early intervention by the criminal justice system, the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime, has tracked 4,300 children over eight years. It has come up with two main findings: first, that working-class children are more likely to come into contact with the criminal justice system regardless of whether or not they actually offend more; and second, that those who do have contact with the criminal justice system are less likely to stop offending than those who do not.
"The message is that doing nothing is often the most effective way to prevent reoffending," says Lesley McAra, who is conducting the study. "But politically, that is obviously a very difficult message."
Politically, it is easier to carry on filling up Britain's jails with young people who will come out more likely to reoffend than they were be-fore they went in. The Home Office would not arrange a visit to a juvenile centre for me, but organised instead for me to go to Rochester Young Offenders' Institution, which houses 392 prisoners between the ages of 18 and 21.
As these places go, Rochester is a model institution: the imposing former borstal is not overcrowded, and on the day of my visit, the sun is shining on the pleasant Kent countryside beyond the barbed-wire fence. The governor, John Wilson, greets me genially with a volley of information about "action plans", "access to employment" courses and "prisoner management guidelines". He is more reticent about the wider implications of his work. "The responsibility of a prison is to take into custody those who are sent to us by the courts. Taking a view on whether or not they should be here in the first place is a political issue."
I am taken to meet a classroom of young men learning how to "disclose" their criminal records to employers. "We try to teach them how to talk about their time in prison in a positive way," explains the teacher. "So instead of trying to cover it up or lie about it, you talk about the courses you have been on, and how much you've changed from since you started offending." One boy shows me the statement he has prepared for his first job interview: "I have a conviction for robbery. I was homeless and had problems with drugs and alcohol at the time. I am confident that my life has moved on . . ."
Those selected for the class are nearing the end of their sentences, thinking about getting their lives back together. "It's very, very hard to break out of the cycle if you've been here for a long time," says Imani, a bright, highly motivated 19-year-old. "You have to be very strong to leave jail and not be tempted. You meet so many connections, people who could easily smuggle drugs . . . It's very hard – that's why so many people here come back to jail."
The atmosphere is quite different on E-Wing, where those with less freedom of association spend their days. The long, straight corridor with cell doors evenly spaced along its length is a sight familiar from the television news. The eerie thing is the silence: there are more than a hundred young people in here, but there is no talking, no shouting, no laughter. The sound of muffled R'n'B emanates from one or two of the cells, but other than that the only evidence of life is a photograph stuck to each door: young faces, unsmiling, mostly black.
I am shown into a cell, which is only a few centimetres wider than the
thin, single bed. This cramped space seems to sum up something about being
young in 21st-century Britain: no room to move or grow; no room to be
naughty, or to be forgiven.
"If they could put me in prison, they would."
Jason*, 17, was arrested for using the word "nigga"
Jason is one of only a few mixed-race kids in his area, a sleepy market town in Essex. On his 16th birthday, he and a friend were stopped and searched by the police on their way home. He said to the policeman, "Let's get on with it, nigga." He was arrested for a public order offence (using the word "nigga"), despite the fact that he was the only black person present. At a court hearing he was found guilty and sentenced to community service. He later appealed, and the conviction was overturned.
" It was my first time in court, but I was feeling confident. The whole way through I thought I was going to win, because the whole thing seemed so ridiculous. Then they found me guilty. I couldn't believe it. Since I won the appeal, the police don't hassle me as much as they did. They don't talk to me like I'm a piece of scum because they know that I can put forth an argument, and they don't expect that of someone like me. But I have to watch myself, because I know that if they've got the smallest chance to put me in prison, they will do it. I haven't got white skin, blue eyes, blonde hair. I haven't got a stiff back and stiff upper lip. I'm different, and they don't like it. "They've always been on my case, always stopping and searching me. They drag you off to Braintree, or to Stansted Airport, and put you in the cells, and then give you a lift home. Once I borrowed my friend's BMX. The cops pulled me over and the next thing I know I'm sitting in the cells in Stansted accused of stealing it. But I've learned my rights now, so I send them running for my paper and pen, or a cup of water. "They lost me a job as well. The police kept coming into the restaurant, saying they wanted to talk to me – they came in three, four, five times and eventually the manager didn't give me any more work. I was bad for business."
"I've been in so many children's homes, I've lost count . . ."
Thomas Pulhofer*, 18, is serving a sentence for robbery
Thomas is currently in Norwich Prison. He was in care from the age of eight, in 30 different homes. When he is out of jail he is given £45 a week to live on; in custody, he costs the taxpayer £40,000 a year. He got four GCSEs when he was 14 in a secure unit. He wrote the following while detained at Warren Hill Prison in Suffolk.
"My life has been a struggle from the start I haven't had it easy in any area of life I've got five sisters who I don't really see that much I haven't seen my dad in over 16 years and I've never had a stable relationship with my mum full stop. I've been in so many children's homes that I have lost count I've been every corner of the country one time or another jail has been like a second home for me I've been seven times my first sentence was 18 months and my second sentence was 18 months I was only 11 when I first went to jail orchard lodge was my first destination. "After a while I got institutionalised and didn't care if I got sent back to prison I took it as a joke there was know way you could punish me I ended up liking prison even when it come to my release date I didn't want to leave certain people would call me a jail cat but I'm not there was just nothing on the other side of those gates that I wanted. I can remember the first time I was released from prison I nearly got run over I forgot how to cross the road properly as they had these new trains that went on the same road as what cars went on with know wheels I shit myself I've been Feltham three times Huntercombe twice and orchard lodge twice and now I'm in some prison called Warren Hill it's in Suffolk. I can see the sea out of my cell window that's why it gets too cold at night on the way to the prison there's know street lights all you can see is trees it's right out in the sticks. "When your in prison you have a lot of time to think about what your going to do when you get out but when you do get released you forget about that most of the time and go back to your old life you can't help it. I'm not preaching to you because who am I to give advice but if you've been jail before and you come out to the same people you did crime with you will be dragged back into criminal activities I know there your boys but there not the one who will be getting sent back to prison you will be I hope [this] helped you understand more about prisons and maybe answered some of your questions it's not a holiday camp in prison it's a ten foot by eight foot wide cell that you spend 23 hours a day of your life in it's not a joke."
* Names have been changed
16 October 2006