The UK government has no business tracking the children of criminals.
In an interview with the UK Independent on 16 August, Britain’s policing minister Hazel Blears put the case for a scheme to prevent children of burglars, muggers and gangsters from breaking the law by ‘tracking’ and ‘targeting’ them from birth (1).
‘We can predict the risk factors that will lead a child into offending behaviour’, she claimed. ‘About 125,000 kids have got a dad in prison. That’s a huge risk factor. Something like 65 per cent of those kids will end up in prison themselves.’ (2)
It is not only the children of convicted criminals who are on Blears’ hit list. She also wants to keep a close eye on other high-risk groups, ‘such as children who have been in local authority care’ – ‘let’s track them from early on as well’.
While she’s at it, why not go in for tracking all boys? Being born a boy is a clear ‘risk factor’ in leading a child into criminal behaviour. And what about tracking specific ethnic groups – those who are at a higher risk of ending up in jail? Or indeed, children from ‘broken homes’?
None of these proposals would – at present anyway – be seen as acceptable. Yet it is no more acceptable to propose this level of intrusion into the lives of the children of criminals – even if it is all done in the name of ‘giving them extra support and help’ (3)
Blears promotes the methods used in the government’s Sure Start programme for under-fives in deprived areas to give support to children in other high-risk groups. She wants government agencies to ‘intervene at an early age and say “your life can be different and we will help you and your parents make your life different”’.
In short, children would be ‘tracked’ from the time they are in nappies to their teenage years, in order to steer them on the right track and nip disruptive behaviour in the bud. And their parents will be encouraged to take parenting classes, too.
Some have warned that labelling children in this way can be counterproductive, perhaps proving to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pam Hibbert, chief policy officer of the children’s charity Barnado’s, argues that ‘attempting to pre-determine outcomes can actually lead to stigmatisation and labelling of children, resulting in more rather than less children entering the criminal justice system’.
But whether or not such early intervention schemes are effective – and there is no firm evidence that they are – we need to question the values of a government that would threaten the liberty of the individual to such an extent. In a free society the function of the criminal justice system is not to isolate and monitor potential criminals, but to bring charges against those whom it suspects of having committed a crime.
The notion of people being innocent until proven guilty has been attacked in recent years, by numerous New Labour initiatives. This could now be taken a stage further by targeting a child as a potential criminal, at birth or even earlier, purely on the basis of the family that he or she is born in to.
This seriously undermines the whole idea of a person being an individual in their own right, responsible for their own actions.
(1) Children of criminals to be ‘targeted’ and ‘tracked’, Independent, 16 August 2004
(2) Hazel Blears: Blair’s ‘little ray of sunshine’ keen to shed new light on the old cops-and-robbers story, Independent, 16 August 2004
(3) Youth crime plans could misfire, BBC News
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