Does persistence pay?

Anyone working in the social care field for more than a few
years will remember the mid-90s stories of “rat boy”, responsible
for a one-child crime wave. “Rat boy” was so named because he lived
in a heating duct in Newcastle while carrying out a multitude of
local burglaries. While stories like his are not terribly common,
they regularly crop up in the media. They usually arise when we’re
in a state of panic over the effectiveness of the youth justice
system. It is not necessarily the case that the youth justice
system “creates” them when it is failing, but these children get
noticed more at these crisis points, and someone then gets in touch
with the media. Their stories provide a sort of barometer of public

Clearly we are in the middle of another moral panic about youth
crime. Earlier this year the public read all about the “terror
triplets”, all 13 years old, who were subject to an antisocial
behaviour order for their activities in Gillingham town centre.
More recently, home secretary David Blunkett was forced to make
public statements concerning an 11-year-old in Cardiff who had been
in court 150 times. A similar case in Scotland resulted in a debate
on the local version of BBC Newsnight. At the Policy
Research Bureau, we regularly field media enquiries about these
child crime waves. As we answer these questions year on year, our
responses remain consistent, despite widespread overhaul of the
system as a whole and changes in the penalties available. We
thought it might be useful to summarise the research evidence and
point out what is generally supported as the best hope of

The first question is, are persistent young offenders really
different from other, less frequent, offenders? And do they require
a different type of intervention, or just more of the same? It is
odd that we have relatively little research information to help us
answer these questions. To date, research has only really
demonstrated that persistent young offenders start offending
earlier than most one-off offenders, they are usually harder to
manage as younger children, they nearly always have experienced
chaotic, disadvantaged or abusive childhoods, and many have trouble
concentrating or staying still. Really persistent offenders, who
keep it up for life, tend to have poorer social skills, fewer
friends, fewer things binding them to society and community. All
these things are very important in considering

However, what these children actually do in terms of offending is
very much like what all young offenders do – lots of theft, lots of
car crime. They just do more of it – persistent does not
necessarily equal serious or violent. While these children only
represent around 5 per cent or less of young offenders as a whole,
they account for a very high proportion of offences, perhaps as
much as half (depending on your definition of persistence).

When they first come before the courts, it is almost impossible to
spot the ones that are going to go on to be serious trouble over a
period of several years. Many youth justice practitioners will deny
this, and will assert that they can spot the worst ones early on,
but in fact lots of young people with similar background problems
do not go on to be persistent. We have to be very careful not to
drag them into it by criminalising them too fast. While its
intentions are good, there is no denying that the youth justice
system can cause or aggravate problems as well as solve them.

So what should we do about these young people? Often the policy
solution is to try to broaden the custody net, so that we can get
more of them off the streets. In the early 1990s, the answer
conceived by the Conservative government, and delivered by the
incoming Labour administration, was building more prisons for 12 to
14 year olds.

The new prisons (secure training centres) still exist, although the
secure training order that sent children to them was phased out by
2000. It was replaced with a new custodial disposal, the detention
and training order (DTO) that allowed for half of the sentence to
be served in custody and half in the community. Around 6,000 DTOs
are made each year, on our most persistent young offenders from age
12 upwards. Recently, the home secretary has pondered lowering the
custodial age, so that the DTO could be used with 10 year olds at
any time thought necessary.

The DTO reflects our ambivalence about what to do with these
children. Should it be custody or community? Which bit is really
rehabilitative, which bit can turn the child around? Is the custody
bit just for our own sense of justice, to show that there is a
proper punishment, whereas the community bit is where the real work
is done?

The main arguments for locking-up persistent young offenders have
been remarkably consistent over the years. One argument is that
while offenders are in custody, they are not offending. However,
the incapacitation effects of locking up young offenders are not as
great as people think. Research has shown that we would have to
lock up a gigantic proportion of the population of young people in
order to actually feel any improvement in the crime hot

Secondly, it has regularly been argued that custody would act as a
deterrent to reoffending. Ironically, however, custody seems to be
one of the most certain ways to ensure reoffending. Four out of
five young people from young offenders institutions are reconvicted
within two years of release.

Moreover, concerns with custody for young people go beyond its
ineffectiveness. Research has indicated potential harmful effects
of custody for this age group, including anxiety within the
institution, disorientation upon release, and difficulties for
family relationships. Indeed, the UK is a signatory to several
international treaties (including the UN Convention on the Rights
of the Child) that restrict custody to the minimum number of people
for the minimum amount of time – the principle of “last

If we cannot lock up enough young people to make a real difference
(even if we were inclined to, which luckily most policy makers are
not), then where else do we turn for solutions? What alternatives
to custody seem to make a difference when tackling this problem? To
say there are no easy solutions is a clich’. The less common
corollary is that there are no cheap solutions either. Whatever we
do with these young people, we have to be prepared to foot the
bill. Generally speaking, while the public and policy makers are
happy to pay a fortune for short and pointless stays in custody,
they are much more squeamish about the cost of serious community

In order to really work, any community alternative to imprisonment,
for these most persistent young offenders, has to include the
following elements:

  • Everyone has to agree what the focus of the intervention really
    is, and all efforts should be targeted directly at that.
  • The young people’s time has to be filled with positive
    activities. Supervising officers for Medway YOI trainees told us
    that their task effectively became a battle to fill the trainee’s
    time, to keep them away from negative influences induced by
    boredom. Indeed, the only significant difference between those who
    offended and those who did not was whether activities were set up
    for them.
  • The intervention has to deal with underlying problems. These
    are not simply bad children, but children with real difficulties.
    The offending will not go away if the family issues, drug issues,
    and educational issues are not tackled as well. Their offending is
    part of a lifestyle, not necessarily the result of a rational
  • Inter-agency co-operation is necessary. Everyone needs to play
    ball, to ensure swift arrangements of facilities. Disillusionment
    sets in fast, especially with younger children, if promised help is
    not forthcoming. These children have been let down by the system
    already to get into this situation, so the intervention and its
    missionaries must be reliable if trust with the authorities is
    going to be built up.
  • Good role models should be provided. For example, building
    mentor-type relationships can do this, and can offer much needed
  • There has to be significant and continuous contact. Rules of
    thumb suggest programmes that last for six months or more.
  • Staff need to be specially trained in dealing with difficult
    adolescents, not simply transferred from other parts of the
    criminal justice or welfare systems and expected to cope.

Any effective solution for persistent young offenders requires
almost continuous supervision and surveillance in order to
stabilise an often chaotic life filled with negative influences.
The good news is that the government has already begun to roll-out
a solution that more or less fulfils these criteria. Intensive
Supervision and Surveillance Programmes (ISSPs) include a highly
structured daily itinerary of supervised programmes to address
behaviour problems, educational deficits and drug or alcohol
problems. Combined with mentoring schemes which foster adult-child
relationships, these schemes could offer the stability desperately
needed without the further disruption and anxiety caused by
custody. It is early days yet, but evaluations are under way and
should point out the most effective components. Other promising new
developments include treatment foster care for those with mental
health problems as well as antisocial behaviour. However, a
cultural shift is still required to regard these interventions as
investments, both in the future of young people and of communities,
in order to accept the level of spending necessary to really make a

Ann Hagell is co-director and Neal Hazel senior research
fellow at social affairs research body the Policy Research

Further reading

A Hagell, N Hazel and C Shaw, Evaluation of Medway
Secure Training Centre
, Home Office, 2000

McGuire J, What Works: Reducing Reoffending, Wiley,

M Rutter, H Giller, A Hagell, Antisocial Behaviour by Young
, Cambridge University Press, 1998

Youth Justice Board website (

Home Office Research Development website (

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