Violent crime committed by children and teenagers has gone up by a third in only three years, an investigation by The Sunday Telegraph revealed last week. Total offences climbed steadily from 184,474 in 2003 to 222,750 in 2006. Most of these are dealt with by overstretched youth courts in possession of limited sentencing powers. Patrick Sawer reports from the "frontline" of youth justice, as magistrates, lawyers and officials struggle to cope with rising levels of youth crime.
The magistrate's irritation and despair are mounting. For yet another day, Susan Bermon, chairman of the bench, has had to spend hour after hour handing down supervision and work orders to a depressingly long line of young offenders. Dispatching yet another child who should be in class and not in the dock, she turns her gaze to the court: "I'm afraid we are limited in what we can do when it comes to sentencing," Mrs Bermon says, directing her words at me, sitting alone in the press gallery. "In many cases our hands are tied."
For Mrs Bermon, last Wednesday was just a typical day at Southend Youth Court, struggling to find suitable and effective punishments for the children who appear before her, while staying within the sentencing guidelines laid down for magistrates. She had just ordered a 13-year-old boy and his 15-year-old accomplice to carry out 12 hours of "reparation" work in the community for stealing – 4.98 worth of sweets and chocolates from a BP garage shop.
The younger one had a string of previous convictions for theft, but was said to be making "good progress" with the Youth Offending Team (YOT). He was even credited with attending school regularly and doing "good work" on a photography project about the Essex coast town. Mrs Bermon tells the boy: "Keep out of trouble or you will end up back here."
The court had earlier dealt with a 13-year-old found to have a knife hidden on him at the town's swimming pool. A first-time offender, he could only be given a simple referral order requiring him to work with the YOT. This would involve counselling about the dangers of carrying knives.
"As you can see it can be very frustrating," repeats Mrs Bermon to me as the boy leaves the court. "In some cases we don't even get the co-operation of the child's parents, which we need to be able to act."
The work of people like Mrs Bermon and other court officials is under scrutiny as never before. Magistrates were criticised two weeks ago following revelations that one of the teenage killers of father-of-three Gary Newlove had attacked him after being freed on bail for two other serious assaults.
Fifty miles from Southend, and a day later, a similar story is being played out at one of London's busiest youth courts.
A senior official at West London Youth Court, in Hammersmith, stares despondently at the growing stack of criminal files piled in front of him, each containing what he says are the stark details of a child's life going to waste. "The youth justice system simply cannot cope," he tells me. "We are being swamped. We are being asked to deal with a problem that is of society's making and all we seem to be able to do is apply a sticking plaster to it."
Years of experience have taught him that many of the juveniles appearing in front of the bench, often persistent offenders, become immune to whatever sanctions youth courts are able to hand down – whether they be supervision orders, counselling and therapy sessions, community work or ultimately, detention in a secure unit.
The punishments that youth courts can mete out are governed by the Sentencing Guidelines Council, working on the advice of the Lord Chief Justice, criminologists and representatives of the police and magistrates. Maximum sentences for each offence are laid down by law.
The heaviest sentence a youth court can impose – and only then in the most serious of cases – is a detention and training order, stretching between four months and two years. What has gone is the "short, sharp shock" of a brief detention. These children come from backgrounds far harder and more frightening than anything they face in court," says the official, who asked not to be named. "And the courts have become so 'user-friendly', so touchy-feely, they have lost their ability to instil awe, fear and respect into these young people. The professionals working in the system are well-meaning and committed, but they are rarely able to engage with these kids because their backgrounds are so different. If you are brought up on a tough London estate – as I was – how do you engage with a middle-class person from a leafy suburb? You inhabit a completely different world. The children quickly learn to tell social workers, youth offender teams and the courts what they want to hear. They learn to play the game."