Speedy justice trying to tame tearaways

PUBLISHED: 14:00 24 September 2001 | UPDATED: 10:34 03 March 2010

HUGE changes have been made in the way kid criminals are dealt with in Suffolk's courts to speed up youth justice and prevent repeat crime. Crime reporter LISA BAXTER spent a day in Ipswich's Youth Court to see how teenaged tearaways are dealt with and look at what is being done to cut youth crime.

HUGE changes have been made in the way kid criminals are dealt with in Suffolk's courts to speed up youth justice and prevent repeat crime. Crime reporter LISA BAXTER spent a day in Ipswich's Youth Court to see how teenaged tearaways are dealt with and look at what is being done to cut youth crime.

THE noisy gaggle of teenagers gathered in the corridor could fool you for a moment into thinking you've wandered into a schoolyard rather than an Ipswich courthouse. Only the topic of conversation is a little different outside Youth Court. For rather than playground gossip, the high-pitched chatter is more likely to dwell on predictions of punishment or a youngster's search for a brief than the latest break-time craze.

Two mornings a week, the Elm Street court building fills up with an unlikely assortment of under-18s, some accompanied by their parents, others by a social worker, many completely alone – as they wait to have their cases heard by magistrates trained to sit on kiddie crime.

The benches outside the courtroom fill with streams of teenaged boys – there are few girls for around 90 per cent of young offenders are male.

In a single day, a dozen-long string of teenagers took their place before a bench of three magistrates (a man and two women) as the morning's work spilled over into the afternoon.

The day began with a 16-year-old boy, at court without his parents or a guardian, pleading guilty to a range of motoring offences including driving a moped while disqualified and without insurance or a helmet.

"It was something to do. I was bored," the boy told magistrates.

His solicitor said the teenager had been in court several times already this year. "There has been concern that he will fall into a regular pattern of offending", he said of his young client. But after hearing that the youngster had recently begun a training course in motor mechanics – which would "keep him out of trouble" – magistrates told him he had narrowly avoided a custodial sentence and they were imposing a nightly curfew instead. They also disqualified him from driving for nine months.

A string of boys aged from 13 to 17 followed him through the courtroom doors, charged with offences ranging from stealing pushbikes to using violence to enter a property and assault.

A pretty-faced, 13-year-old boy ambled into the courtroom with his mum to hear charges of possession of an imitation firearm with intent read out against him.

Three girls, two aged 13 and a 15-year-old followed shortly later – friends who had met in an Ipswich children's home where one assaulted a member of staff and the other two helped her damage property.

Magistrates chastised them for their giggles as they stood in court with their care-workers sitting behind.

The court heard how problems started at around 10.30pm in the home when a member of staff went into one of the 13-year-old's rooms to ask her to turn her music down. The girl hit the woman with her elbow when she tried to pull the plug. The teenaged trio then grabbed knives from the kitchen and tried to unscrew door panels in the home. The gang verbally abused police who had been called to the home.

The court heard how the 13-year-old, who admitted assault and criminal damage, was already on a referral order for the same type of behaviour and for setting things on fire. Magistrates ordered reports to be compiled on her before sentencing. The other two girls, both of whom admitted criminal damage, were given an absolute discharge.

Around half the teenagers facing Ipswich's justice system that day were in local authority care and almost all of them had committed their crimes in their care homes. Children in care frequently appear in court for crimes which, had they been committed in a family home, are unlikely to have got further than the front door.

"There's always a high proportion in care," the Crown Prosecution Service's John Everitt of the youngsters appearing in South East Suffolk Youth Court.

Huge changes in the way youth justice is delivered have impacted on the way Suffolk's young law-breakers are dealt with since new legislation introduced three years ago to reform the system across Britain. The Youth Justice Board for England and Wales was established by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 to prevent youth offending and deliver quicker justice with more appropriate penalties. It has had a major effect on the goings on inside Ipswich's Elm Street Youth Court.

Chris Yule, Suffolk's Chief Prosecutor, said the biggest difference is in the push to identify "Persistent Young Offenders" (those who have appeared three times for specific types offences at separate court offences) and setting a specific target of 70 days for dealing with them from arrest to sentence.

"Cases going through Youth Court have to move much more swiftly to achieve the overall target," he said. "In March 2000, we started with an average of 142 days start to finish. By March 2001, we've driven that down to 79 days from arrest to sentence. We have not reached the target yet but youngsters are getting trough youth court generally much more swiftly."

The point of dealing quickly with repeat offenders is to sentence them before they have the chance to go on committing more crime while waiting to go through the court system, he explained.

"Traditionally a Persistent Young Offender is just that. In the time he or she was waiting to go through the system they carried on committing crime. Our experience in Suffolk with one or two was that they would clock up 20, 30 or 40 offences before finally being dealt with. Every time they'd come up it would be because they had committed more offences. It meant it would be a long time before they got sentenced," Mr Yule said.

And with the crimes committed by youngsters in the county becoming increasingly violent, the need to deal with repeat kid criminals quickly becomes clear.

"The offences themselves have got slightly more serious and there has regrettably been quite a marked increase in offences against the person; robberies, serious assaults, street robbery is a big problem, and carrying weapons," said Mr Yule of the pattern of youth crime in recent years.

"In the last three years, violence against the person (committed by youths) has gone up. Before that, there were increases in car crime, which has now tailed off. That's gone down and there's been an increase in violence," said John Everitt, adding that most of such crime happened in Suffolk's urban areas. Among those in court that morning was a teenaged Suffolk boy accused of stabbing another pupil at school.

Where the pattern of offending and the push to speed up justice have changed, a range of sentencing options have been introduced in an effort to get to the root of youth crime rather than simply fining teenagers or locking them up.

"Trying to make the punishment relevant to the criminal act" is what lies behind the changes, he said. "If the punishment is given only nine months later, the relevance to the offender is limited.

"The Crime and Disorder Act brought in a whole raft of new sentences, largely community based. The first approach is a referral order to local community people who may try and help a young person to amend their ways rather than carry on in the court system. Every first time offender goes to this group of people," Mr Yule said.

"When the Labour Party came in they had done a lot of research into the background of repeat offending. They wanted to push the responsibility back to parents and the community and deal with it much more than in the past. I think they also felt that people could commit a lot of crime before the system caught up with them."

The impetus now is to "deal with people in a timely fashion so they are put right before they have the chance to build up a hardened attitude," he added.

John Gregg, head of Suffolk Youth Offending Service, said: "The new sentences have tried to provide the opportunity to include some element of payback to the community or the victim. In the old system, quite often young people would get a fine or bound over but the new orders are designed to include reparation."

Teenage tearaways might be ordered to do community work or to make some form of reparation to their victims. The new measures also focus on addressing the reasons for a youngster's offending, he said, and tackling any problems in conjunction with their parents.

Under the changed system, a young person convicted in court for a first offence must either be sentenced to a referral order or an absolute discharge – unless the crime is so serious is warrants a custodial sentence, Mr Gregg explained.

With a referral order, "a panel will sit down with the young person and a parent, and in some cases the victim, to make a decision about what should happen," he said. A contract would then be agreed which may include a reparation order or an agreement to attend school regularly depending on the circumstances of the crime.

"It's an attempt to try and get people looking at the underlying reasons of why they are getting into trouble and do something about it," Mr Gregg said. Other types of sentence might include Parenting Orders of Action Plan Orders (generally relatively short intensive programmes focussing on a specific issues in relation to the youngster's offending such as anger management or drug abuse).

"It's like a tariff kind of a system," said Mr Gregg explaining how sentencing got tougher for repeat offenders, with custody at the upper limit.

In the past, magistrates at Youth Court could only sentence youngsters between 10 and 17 to up to six months detention. Now, they can impose up to two years Detention and Training Orders. "The effect is that more cases are being dealt with more quickly and they are dealing with all but the most serious cases," said Mr Everitt of the cases appearing at Youth Court in Ipswich.

A concrete aim of the reforms was to cut youth crime by 5pc nationally by April 2003, Mr Gregg said.


Youth Justice Board:

Crown Prosecution Service:

Criminal Justice System:

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