Terrorised by hidden epidemic of child criminals

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SCOTS children are behind a ‘hidden’ epidemic of more than 6,000 serious crimes a year which current laws are incapable of dealing with effectively, it was claimed last night.

Figures obtained by Scotland on Sunday reveal for the first time that, of the 30,000 offences committed by children annually, around 6,300 - or one in five - are officially graded medium or high-gravity.

The two categories include crimes such as serious assault, fireraising, extortion, indecent assault, rape and murder, but the vast majority of the youngsters responsible are still dealt with behind closed doors at children’s panels.

Critics of the system claim the panels are no longer up to the job of dealing with serious juvenile offenders because there are too few secure places for youngsters and they usually have to rely on supervision orders.

Figures from the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration (SCRA) show there were 31,129 crimes committed by children last year.

But, for the first time, the annual figure has been broken down into low, medium and high-gravity categories, revealing far more detail about the nature and extent of offences.

By far the biggest category is low-gravity offences, at 71%, but along with vandalism and drunkenness this still includes crimes such as assault, theft, forgery and some drugs offences.

The medium-gravity category makes up 20% of all cases - around 6,000 a year - ranging from attempted housebreaking and attempted car theft to robbery and assault and causing bodily injury.

The high-gravity offences account for 1% of the total - around 300 a year - and range from reckless conduct with firearms up to murder.

The children committing these crimes range in age from eight, the age of criminal responsibility in Scotland, to 17.

Although crimes involving children can be heard in an adult court, all but a tiny fraction are dealt with by children’s panels. These little-understood proceedings, which are closed to the victims of crime, are designed to be as unlike a court as possible.

Instead of an adversarial battle between lawyers, the involved parties sit around a table and discuss what to do in the best interests of the child as well as society.

While children can be sent, in the worst cases, to secure homes, most are ‘dealt with’ by social work supervision orders, counselling or offender behaviour programmes run by charities.

The system was designed 30 years ago and is now being examined by the Scottish Executive. Critics say the system works for children at risk and low-level offenders but needs to be beefed up to deal with the hardcore of young criminals.

One recent case that will be dealt with at a children’s panel involves a 13-year-old boy arrested and charged with wilful fireraising. More than 25,000 homes were affected when fire ripped through a BT exchange in Musselburgh, near Edinburgh.

Earlier this year, Scotland on Sunday revealed that an 11-year-old boy had clocked up more than 100 offences in 12 months. The youngster’s crimewave involved car break-ins, vandalism, theft and assault, but the children’s panel’s toughest sanction - referral to secure accommodation - could not be carried out because of a lack of places.

Annabel Goldie, justice spokeswoman for the Conservatives, said she was "profoundly concerned" about the child crime statistics uncovered by Scotland on Sunday.

She said: "The children’s panel system plays an important part in Scotland’s justice system. But it is at its best when dealing with children who are at risk and are in need of care and protection.

"Its work needs to be supplemented with youth courts that could deal with 14 and 15-year-olds. It also needs a wider range of powers which are sadly lacking from its armoury of disposals.

"It is also important that victims of crime have confidence in the system and that those who commit crimes are being dealt with fairly but firmly."

Children’s panels can order that a child see a social worker, take part in a programme for child offenders or ultimately be sent to secure accommodation.

But critics believe offenders under the age of 16 should be diverted to youth courts and say tougher sanctions such as weekend and evening detention, compulsory groundings, drug-testing and treatment orders, community service and supervised attendance orders are the best way to deal with younger thugs.

Norman Brennon, a former policeman and spokesman for the Victims of Crime Trust, said: "These terrible figures show that the parameters of children’s behaviour have moved significantly.

"Thirty years ago these types of offences were being committed by much older teenagers. Now they are being committed by children aged eight to 16. Many youngsters think their behaviour is acceptable and they know they won’t be punished. They think they are untouchable because excuses are made for their appalling behaviour."

Susan McVie, an expert in anti-social behaviour and youth justice at Edinburgh University, said: "The children’s hearing system in Scotland is widely regarded to be one of the best systems of juvenile justice. But it does fail to deal effectively with some young people involved in serious or persistent offending."

Last night, Alan Miller, the director of the SCRA, said he wanted fast-track hearings for the most worrying and serious offences.

But he insisted the present system was the right way to deal with most young offenders because many of the children committing crimes are already suffering family problems.

He said: "It’s obviously a serious concern if a child is charged with an offence involving aggressive or sexually aggressive behaviour. We have to ask some serious questions about the level of risk that they might generate to members of the public.

"In these cases, quick interventions are important so the child can understand that what has happened is an issue. At the moment it can take four and a half months for cases to be dealt with, but I would like to see that cut to two months for the most serious offences.

"In a sense, every offence is serious, at least for the victim. Over 75% of our cases are made up of troublesome but relatively low-risk offences such as breach of the peace, vandalism, minor assault or petty theft.

"Children’s panels are about reducing the risk of re-offending and improving the health and education of vulnerable children."