Playing to the gallery

Juvenile justice has always been a political
football. Politicians love to play fast and loose with the futures
of young people who become involved in crime. Headline writers rush
to label young people with catchy titles such as Ratboy. And the
public is left with the impression that hordes of young burglars
are ransacking the nation’s homes.

Ministers are continually upping the ante on
who can introduce the toughest punishments for young offenders. The
current home secretary David Blunkett appears to have fallen into
this trap. His announcement earlier this week that 12 to 16
year-olds on remand will now be electronically tagged appears to be
following down the same draconian path of child jails, antisocial
behaviour orders, and child curfews.

It could be argued that Blunkett has bucked
the trend and adopted a somewhat progressive approach to youth
offending. Electronic tags will keep many young people on remand
out of jails. They will be able to remain with their families
instead of being placed miles from home. And the home secretary
emphasised that the new measures would be used only for what he
termed “hard core” juvenile offenders who reoffend while on bail.
He estimated the number at between 20 and 30 in each London

However, it was clear from Blunkett’s language
that the real aim is not to keep children out of secure training
centres but to ensure the safety of the community without incurring
the enormous cost of building more jails. His words revealed his
attitude towards juvenile offenders – he pledged to ensure there
would be no “untouchables” in the criminal justice system and in a
radio interview referred to young offenders as “thugs”.

These young people don’t need a tag that they
can boast about to their friends but intensive bail support and
supervision schemes instead. These provide access to a range of
professionals who can work with young offenders and steer them away
from further criminal activity. Such initiatives are already
developing via the youth offending teams but this is not fast
enough for Blunkett. Many young people may repent at leisure his
hasty decision.

– See news, page 6

Make good the promise

As mental health charity Mind launches its My
Choice campaign this week, it is all too apparent that traditional
attitudes to mental health services remain firmly entrenched. In
spite of the hard work, creativity and commitment demonstrated by
community mental health teams across the country, the old practice
of containing the problem rather than solving it still appears to
be dominant. Mind’s campaign promotes the medically unfashionable
idea that people who visit their GP with a mental health problem
ought not to have Hobson’s choice between medication or nothing at
all. Alternatives such as counselling, art therapy and
psychotherapy, to name but a few, seldom find favour in a doctor’s
surgery, even though enthusiasm for them among mental health
clients is evidently widespread.

And the problems extend beyond primary care
into hospitals, which still too often act as psychiatric warehouses
when an adequate system of community crisis facilities would meet
users’ needs far more effectively.

The promise of 24-hour crisis centres has been
held out to people with mental health problems for the best part of
a decade, but no great strides have been made. Yet, as work by the
Mental Health Foundation and the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health
has shown, crisis houses, helplines and drop-in services can be a
powerful combination in preventing hospital admissions and are
popular among users. It is time to act on the promise.

– See news, page 12

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