What do drama and drill have to do with youth crime?

That’s the headline on a piece I did for the Liberal Democrat Education Association’s booklet, Liberal Democrats in Education: what we are thinking and doing, which has just come out:

Labour has poured huge sums of money into the youth justice system since they came to power in 1997 – but failed to make an impact on youth offending. Labour has used the justice system as the main focus for the provision of the social support that at risk children need through Youth Offending Teams and spent more than 10 times as much money on youth courts and custody than on preventative measures. This has led to more children entering the youth justice system than ever before without altering the level of criminality. This approach is based on an assessment of the symptoms rather than the causes of youth crime and a presumption that removing a few bad apples will save the barrel – but it will not work if the barrel has dry-rot.

There needs to be a shift in emphasis; criminalising children should be a last resort, not the first option. It is essential that young people are given the support and guidance they need to grow into responsible adults. A key factor in this is involvement in adult-supported activities. Whether this is the Cadets or a local drama group, it is through constructive activities that young people learn how to behave. Children from wealthier backgrounds tend to be involved in more adult-supported activities than those in poverty- and it is here that social exclusion enters the debate.

As with education, deprivation is a significant factor in determining outcomes. This is partly because wealth allows us to buy dance classes and drama lessons for our little cherubs, but also because people living in wealthier areas tend to be more willing to set up Scout Troupes or drama groups- they tend to have greater community spirit. This is where I believe good government can make a difference- by enabling community activities and releasing the latent good will that there is in our communities we can begin to build the community capital.

The fact is that stronger communities lower crime – the more people you know within a fifteen minute walk of your home, the lower the crime rate will be. Stronger communities mean more likelihood of intervention when people misbehave. The question must therefore be: how do we strengthen communities to prevent youth crime?

Central to this is giving back to communities a genuine role in the justice system – restorative justice, where victims confront a criminal with the consequences of their crime give both victims and perpetrators a better understanding of the motivation and impact of crimes; Community Justice Panels, where representatives of the local communities agree a course of reparation with the offender allow the community to feel that justice has been done; and Acceptable Behaviour Contracts (ABCs) which agree levels of acceptable behaviour with an offender can all contribute to a genuinely community-led justice system.

There needs to be an understanding of the context that allows young people to become criminals and a focus on creating the communities and activities that will divert children away from crime. Changing the system to include the community can help with this but it is also essential that adult-led activities – such as drama and drill- allow young people to learn how to behave and to develop aspirations. By simply fast-tracking children to custody, all Labour has done is spent an enormous amount of money and increased the public fear of crime – not a good result!