Britain alters laws to fight violent crimes by youths Offenses include teacher beatings

March 31, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- It was a heinous crime, but according to the law it couldn't be perpetrated by the boy who is accused of it. He's only 13, and the law says he is incapable of rape.

Thus, in an effort to catch up with the advance of biology and the earlier maturation of the male of the species, and shaken once again by an outrage by a juvenile, the British government is determined to harden even further its line against what it sees as an explosion of youth crime throughout the land.

A bill is expected be put into Parliament soon to assure that boys ages 10 to 13, if they rape, will be charged with that felony -- unlike under present law, for the lesser crime of indecent assault.

The case that caused this was the classroom rape of a teacher by a 13-year-old South London boy. It was said to be the first such crime in British history, and it was reported only last week.

A couple of other incidents -- a student's beating of his school's headmistress early this month, followed by March 18 reports of an assault by a 15-year-old music student against his teacher -- only added to the unease over what appears to be a rising level of juvenile crime.

More than 16,000 attacks against teachers are said to have occurred in the past 12 months. Reflecting the prevailing public outrage, the Daily Telegraph newspaper demanded: "Must we wait for a murder before something is done?"

In addition to the change in the law, new administrative measures have gone into effect allowing social workers to use physical restraint in dealing with difficult youngsters in their care. These will include locking them in at night, or using personal restraint, known here as the "pin down" method.

Other measures are on the government's schedule.

Animated by the growing national debate over youth crime, Home Minister Kenneth Clarke recently unveiled plans for a network of five "secure training centers." They would hold juvenile offenders between the ages of 12 to 15 who have committed three serious offenses.

Some Conservatives in the House of Commons expressed dissatisfaction that the cut-off age was not set as low as 10 years.

The public clamor for treating juvenile delinquents more harshly began to build following the abduction and murder in February of 2-year-old Jamie Bulger in the Merseyside community of Bootle, allegedly by two 10-year-old boys. The killing of the child electrified the country and pushed the debate on youth crime to the top of the national agenda.

Despite the appearance of guaranteeing fast action in this matter, the new centers couldn't be ready for nearly two years. Legislation authorizing them won't be introduced until next fall, in the new Parliament.

And they would be expensive, just as they are in the United States, where cities like Baltimore struggle constantly against the odds in trying to cope with juvenile delinquents at institutions such as the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School.

The centers would cost about $113 million to build, with each containing about 40 boys. The centers would only be for boys, since young males commit the most crimes. The boys would go to school and receive counseling, all at a cost of about $3,000 a week per boy. The cost in Maryland -- where there appear to be more juvenile offenders than in all of England -- is about $1,000 a week.

(Treatment of juveniles in the United States differs from state to state, but in Maryland, young suspects are treated as juveniles up to the age of 18. There are exceptions, however. In charges of first-degree murder or rape, for example, the suspect would be treated as an adult after the age of 14.)

Also, as the public dialogue progresses here for and against the government's measures to curb juvenile crime, the figures on that crime suggest it is declining.

Published in February by the Home Office, they showed that in 1991 there were 182,500 offenders between the ages of 10 and 17, a drop of 81,600 in seven years.

Given those findings, many disapprove of the whole program the government has in mind. A few others believe the remedies the government is contemplating might represent a frantic leap into the past.

"It is basically a highly expensive media reaction rushed in on a wave of moral panic," said Angus Stickler of The Children's Society.

The best way to deal with juvenile delinquency, he said, is not by "yanking young boys out of the community, grouping them together where they will learn much more sophisticated ways of committing crime."

Mr. Stickler and others who work with young offenders believe they can be handled effectively only in community-based institutions, such as exist now throughout Britain, though they are under-funded. The techniques these use include counseling, supervised probation and, for the incorrigible, "children's homes with locks on the doors."

Centers similar to those being advocated by the government have been tried before, said Mr. Stickler. And they have failed. In fact, a great variety of strategies have been tried over the years in Britain to combat juvenile delinquency.

Borstals were common between 1908 and 1982. They held boys between the ages of 16 and 20, for between 6 months and 3 years. They imposed a regimen of schooling, exercise and work with vocational potential, such as bricklaying.

Between 1933 and 1969, children thought to be incorrigible between the ages of 10 and 15 were kept in what were called "approved schools." There they were supposed to be given education and training. The schools were closed in 1969. Their graduates had a high recidivism rate.

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