Monday, April 24, 2006

Leave those kids alone

Later. Most sources agree that the lyric should be "Leave them kids alone". The playground racism case has been resolved, but from the reports it is still hard to know exactly what to make of it.

The noise of breaking glass - a sound familiar to generations of families as children play with balls in the street - alerted the neighbour to the fate that had just befallen his greenhouse.

Understandably furious, he sought out the miscreant who had smashed the glass. It turned out to be his neighbour's son. The boy apologised after confessing to his parents, who told him his pocket money would be docked until he had made good the damage. Satisfied that justice had been done, the neighbour was happy to accept the apology and the money to replace the glass.

Yet what happened next vividly underscores the crisis in policing, justice and the way we deal with unruly children. Alerted to the offence before the neighbours had sorted out the dispute, the police arrived. Under existing law, they were obliged to arrest the child and take him to court. He faced a fine or the prospect of an anti-social behaviour order (Asbo) banning him for playing with a ball in his garden. In short, the boy was guaranteed a criminal record.

This comes from an article in yesterday's Independent on Sunday. I quote at this length partly because it will soon disappear behind the paper's firewall.

There is a danger of romanticising this sort of delinquency if your are not the victim - I am probably more prone to it than most. And it is not clear where this account comes from. Is it a real case or has it been made up by the journalist or one of the groups quoted later in the article? How old is the boy who broke the window?

Even so, the article does demonstrate some of the problems with the current approach to antisocial behaviour by children and young people.

The first is that it tends to undermine people's ability to sort out problems for themselves. The more that the police and other government agencies involve themselves in such minor problems, the less people will feel able or confident to settle them for themselves. Already this talk of docking pocket money and apologising is in danger of sounding rather quaint.

The second problem is that, no matter how many police officers are employed, the force cannot possibly involve itself in every such case. Therefore government intervention is bound to be experienced as unfair and erratic. Not only that. Later in the article Professor Rod Morgan, the youth justice "tsar", is quoted as saying:

"If we are dragging into the system kids who can be dealt with outside then we are overloading it and that means it's likely we will not do as good a job as the public expects with higher-risk cases."

Finally, it shows something that something rather odd has happened to our view of children. Historically, the progressive cause involved convincing institutions - employers, hospitals, the legal system - that children should be treated differently from adults.

Today that cause tends to insist that children should be treated the same as adults. Take the debate on smacking, for instance, where the argument that hitting an adults is wrong, and that therefore hitting a child must be wrong too, is treated by many as absolutely clinching. The idea that a child should be treated differently from an adult is seen as self-evidently absurd.

Yet it is by no means clear that treating a child the same as an adult is always in the child's interests. To see this we need only consider a case that hit the headlines three weeks ago:

Legal proceedings against a 10-year-old boy over alleged racist name-calling have been labelled political correctness gone mad, by a judge.

When I started writing for Liberal Democrat News (in those days it was monthly) I suggested that all columnists were required by law to sign an undertaking never to use the phrase "political correctness gone mad". All judges should be made to sign it too.

But if the judge was really saying "Why are you wasting the court's time by bringing a case like this?" he was entirely justified. Such cases should be sorted out by the schools and parents. Indeed this case seems to have been sorted out by the boys themselves:

The court was told that the boys are now friends and play football with each other.

The danger that such a solution will also soon come to sound quaint.

2 comments:

James said...

There was a C4 Dispatches this evening on roughly the same subject.

Neil Craig said...

The police (& the CPS) clearly have absolutely no leeway to decide not to be so silly (or even in traditional Oor Wullie terms to let him off with a clip on the ear).This strongly suggests the police are as hampered with useless red tape an any other part of society. In this case it has been merely silly, in the case where they couldn't rescue a shot woman who was bleeding to death it was tragic. we are going to have more tragedies if we don't free the police.