The first part of this remarkable book consists of interviews with young people (and sometimes their parents) who have committed criminal offences. They were selected for interview by local authority youth justice teams and were chosen for the crimes they had committed, rather than for their background or school record. Sarah Curtis interviewed 11 of them. Only one was a girl; five of them were white; six black or of mixed parentage. By chance, this more or less reflects the pattern of young offenders in urban areas.
Curtis is a skilled interviewer of young people, as you might expect from someone who has been a youth court and family court magistrate for more than 20 years. She is also judicious, moderate and cautious in her generalisations; and conspicuously humane in her comments, both on the individuals to whom she spoke and on the various attempts that have been made, by this and the last government, to deal with young offenders. No one can doubt the importance of the issue. The danger is that we may hear so much about it that we do not attend to it. Not attending properly may result either in hysterical fear, or in the cynical conviction that there is nothing to be done. Curtis’s book serves to focus the mind on reality, and is full of a practical, even optimistic, vision.
The last chapter is addressed directly to the home secretary, in the form of a letter. Her basic message to Jack Straw is: “You are so careful to fall in with what you see as the public mood that you continue to spend money on extreme measures to contain young people away from home… rather than strengthen projects in the community to reform and divert them from crime.”
Curtis argues that there has been enough research over the past years to make plausible the claim that we know how to “reform” and “divert” young criminals. She gives various examples of successful community ventures, day centres, systems of mentoring, all of them aimed at giving young people enough to do, offering them attainable goals and, where possible, allowing them to make some reparation for their crimes. Some of these ventures have already been abandoned for lack of money; but many remain. She praises the system of “remand fostering,” where trained foster parents provide a proper home for children awaiting trial who would otherwise be…