Thursday, August 24, 2006


When the chairman of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales reveals that the number of youngsters being sent to court each year has risen by up to 40,000 over the past decade, two conclusions must be drawn. First, the chronic overcrowding in young offender institutions, announced by the YJB last week, should have been foreseen long ago. Secondly, the system designed to identify "at risk" teenagers and keep them out of trouble is not working.

The problem is partly procedural. The official response to most youthful antisocial (but not criminal) behaviour used to be a police caution, with no limit to the number of cautions an individual could amass. That patently inadequate system has been replaced with a highly prescriptive one. Young repeat offenders, however trivial their offences, receive an official reprimand, then a final warning, then a summons to a magistrate's court.

It is no surprise that magistrates are swamped with cases that they do not believe merit their attention. But how to handle them if not via the courts is a question with, literally, life and death implications. It emerged yesterday that Danny Preddie, who was convicted this month of the manslaughter in 2000 of Damilola Taylor, was routinely able to flout curfew orders at his care home in South London because he, and the other teenagers living there, knew staff were banned from using force to stop them leaving.

This does not constitute an argument for a general return to the lash. Rather, as Professor Rod Morgan, chairman of the YJB, tells The Times today, staff in schools and care homes need far greater latitude to sanction their charges as they see fit. Police and the courts should be a last resort.

Freedom from box-ticking will help teachers and carers only if they know what to do with it, however. Professor Morgan is also, rightly, concerned that many who confront violent and disruptive youngsters on a daily basis have lost the confidence to insist on decent behaviour for its own sake. When instilling basic discipline does not come naturally, specialist training has been shown to help. This is true not only in care homes, but also in the most important, most neglected institution in the youth justice debate - the family. Even though parenting is a less instinctive skill than many would-be parents think, the unwritten taboo on "teaching" parenting is only now being broken. When help is offered, however, especially to young, single parents of children at risk of sliding into truancy and crime, it is often gratefully received.

In schools, as in single-parent families, a shortage of suitable male role models may be fuelling delinquency. Professor Morgan calls this issue "tricky". For him, it may be. But policymakers must grapple with it. Vital lessons in acceptable behaviour are being missed by children who then graduate to "criminality". This is a failure of parenting and education, but also of an inflexible youth justice system. The Government's role should not be to micromanage the adults involved, but to empower them to be adults


Hunt saboteurs revealed in their true colours

It could have been a scene from a film set in a future in which law and order has broken down, and Britain is ravaged by marauding gangs. This week, a group of anglers were set on by a posse of 30 masked hunt saboteurs, who emerged from the woods next to a Lancashire lake armed with baseball bats. The "sabs" assaulted and threatened several anglers, including women: a 36-year-old nurse had her expensive rod smashed and was told that, if she did not get out of the way, she would end up in the lake. She described the gang, accurately, as cowards, and intends to return to the lake - at Bank House Fly Fishery near Lancaster - as soon as possible.

How did this grotesque incident come about? The saboteurs had apparently been thwarted in their plan to disrupt a grouse shoot, so picked an easier target. But can these activists seriously expect that their campaign will lead to the banning of an activity in which about three million Britons take part?

The Government has no plans to ban this most unassuming and democratic of field sports, pursued by so many of its natural supporters: indeed, its social engineers are currently trying to thrust rods into the hands of women and ethnic minorities, spending the revenue from fishing licences on - among other things - teaching Muslim women to fish. (The idea that adults should be chivvied into healthy leisure activities, like recalcitrant schoolboys being pushed on to a rugby field in the middle of winter, is dear to New Labour's heart.)

Perhaps the "sabs" are too stupid to have worked out that this is a battle they will not win: after all, they might reason, their guerilla warfare against foxhunting paid off in the end. Then again, perhaps they do not much care. Many of the young people who attached themselves to hunt saboteur gangs in the 1980s and 1990s were misguided idealists (who, after a couple of early morning outings, quickly lost interest).

But there was also another element present in the movement, made up of fanatics and thugs who modelled themselves on Northern Irish paramilitaries (hence the balaclavas and baseball bats). At the time, we suspected that these people were not motivated by distress at the death of foxes, but were instead class warriors of a particularly intolerant variety. The attack on angling - a sport with a strong working-class base - strips away even that ideological fig leaf.

The outrage at Bank House Fly Fishery shows the hard-core "sabs" in their true colours. Like the masked "animal rights" activists who terrorise scientists and their families, these thugs are sociopaths: not animal-lovers, but people-haters.


More on those pesky Maori genetics

Previous post here on 12th.

There is within our species a genetic strain that could possibly be a significant factor in objectively evaluating some of the more dysfunctional aspects of our collective nature.

In 2002, Cognitive Neuroscience researchers at the University of London identified a gene on the X chromosome that was associated with genetic susceptibility for the anti-social personality disorder. This gene codes for the neurotransmitter-metabolizing enzyme Monoamine Oxidase A (MAOA).

While males have only one copy of this chromosome, women have two and are therefore much more likely to have at least one copy of the protective gene, this may help explain why severe anti-social behaviour is more common among men than women. The study has also shown that environmental or social factors activate the gene.

Evidence is also emerging of biological differences in a distinct group who systematically manipulate others. They have on average 24% more white matter in their prefrontal cortex and 14% less grey matter than the general population (White matter enables quick, complex thinking, while grey matter mediates inhibitions).

Approximately 3% of European men and 1% of European women have some form of antisocial personality disorder, recent New Zealand genetic epidemiology research indicates an incidence of around 30% for European males and up to 60% for Maori men.

So we have a statistical bell-curve, with the Korea, China and Japan at one end of the scale, and the most isolated frontier of Western culture at the other.

In evaluating cultures, a judgemental perspective has always been something of a precarious minefield. Perhaps the only acceptable criterion has been how a culture treats its marginalised. To that might also be added what a culture does not wish to know about itself. It's therefore unlikely that, within the near future, appropriate research in the fields of Cultural Anthropolgy and Sociology, will originate in New Zealand. Academic opportunity lurks...

More here

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