Thursday, June 3, 1999 Published at 07:52 GMT 08:52 UK
Child health link to crime
The links between child health and crime have been little studied
Improving children's health could play a key role in reducing youth crime, according to research.
But many young offenders have mental health and drug and alcohol problems.
The report, Children, Health and Crime, says risk factors for these health problems often overlap with those for young offending.
They include social deprivation, poor parenting, social exclusion and a history of abuse or neglect.
With mental health, time behind bars often exacerbates the problem.
Nacro wants more emphasis on drug and alcohol education, with drug education starting in primary school.
It says the earlier children start taking drugs, the more likely they will develop a long-term problem.
Drug and alcohol education will become a core part of the national curriculum for secondary schools when citizenship classes are introduced.
Drug charity Turning Point says education allows children to have the information they need to make "informed choices" about drugs.
Alcohol Concern is also backing greater education of young people as part of its suggested national alcohol strategy.
'Joined up' working
The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 calls for health authorities to play a part in the drawing up of crime and disorder reduction strategies.
They will also have to contribute to youth offending teams which are being piloted in 10 areas, but will be rolled out nationally in April 2000.
Nacro says 'joined up' working has already contributed to positive initiatives in the crime and health field.
"These initiatives present real opportunities for broadening the debate on the relationship between health and youth crime," it says.
The report says one recent study shows that more than a third of young offenders had a drugs problem.
Another study stated that more than 40% of young offenders had drunk alcohol or were drunk at the time of their offence.
More than a half of young male offenders and a third of young women offenders are estimated to have mental health problems.
This is a good deal higher than the average one in five children who are estimated to have a mental health problem.
Alcohol is associated with anti-social behaviour, especially violent offences.
Incarceration can itself lead to mental health problems, such as self-harm and suicide.
Another risk factor for young offending is low school attainment and learning disabilities.
One project in London found that 52% of offenders on probation had a learning disability.
Nacro says children should be screened at an earlier age for learning disabilities.
The report states: "The overall end result can be a vicious circle in which the circumstances predisposing children to commit offences can exacerbate problems of ill health which, in turn, reinforce those original circumstances."
In addition to recommendations for on drugs and alcohol education, Nacro says schools should educate children in positive mental health and should impose minimum standards for school meals.
It also calls on the NHS to develop distinct children's health services and to assume responsibility for the health of young offenders.
In addition, Nacro wants more focus on positive parenting and more peer counselling projects to help reach difficult children.
Rob Allen, director of research at Nacro and a member of the government's Youth Justice Board, said: "One in four people known to be involved in crime are children or young people.
"We need to do more, and at an earlier stage, to prevent children becoming immersed in a culture of drink and drugs, and to identify and treat children going through mental and emotional turmoil."
He added that money alone would not help. It was a question of investing in the "right kind of resources".