In the Media

Criminal circles

PUBLISHED July 19, 2006

It sounds like a statement by Tory leader David Cameron during his recent hug-a-hoodie speech, or by Tony Blair launching a government better-parenting initiative. But it was in 1854 that the Rev Sydney Turner wrote: "We must strike deeper, and at the roots and sources of the evil interfering with the young criminal himself at an earlier and less hardened stage of his career; compelling careless and unnatural parents to do their duty, and raising the standard of social obligation ... by more general and more useful education."

Turner ran the Philanthropic Society's Farm School, in Redhill, Surrey, one of the first reform schools in the country for young offenders. The society - now known as Rainer, following its merger nine years ago with the Rainer Foundation - was created on July 22 1806. And documents charting its 200-year history clearly show how frighteningly little the debates and ideas surrounding youth crime have changed in the past two centuries.

Set up partly because of fears about "flash houses", where homeless and destitute young children were trained as Artful Dodger-style thieves and pickpockets, the Philanthropic Society aimed to be the first organisation to take a preventive and rehabilitative approach to the problem.

One of its earliest annual reports, for example, describes a boy who comes into contact with the society: "It is a rule almost without exception that the boy has been left untaught and uncared for - has been the subject of much ill-treatment and neglect - and that the gentler influences of a mother's care and the comforts of an honest and happy home have been unknown to him."

But the society was operating in a climate where young criminals were viewed as "a species of noxious animals". If you argued against custody for boys as young as 12 you were suspected of being "encouragers of crime", according to Turner, and "reproved as weakening the distinction between right and wrong". But the society pressed ahead, treating the boys as responsible human beings and teaching them a variety of trades (many subsequently plied their trade in the colonies). Following a visit to the Farm School in 1852, Charles Dickens, an early supporter, wrote: "We are glad to find that rules are few. Boys are trained to think for themselves; each is judged on his own merits. Responsibilities are placed upon their shoulders: they are even trusted out of sight."

By 1848, the society had helped 1,500 children, and reported a reoffending rate of just 5%, which began to silence its detractors. And it was instrumental in the introduction of an 1854 Act of Parliament that allowed courts to refer young offenders to reform schools as an alternative to prison.

But success came at a price. When approached by the governor of Newgate prison to take young offenders off its hands, the charity faced a dilemma - familiar to many voluntary organisations today - as to whether to do the state's bidding. With legacies, public notices, anniversary dinners, charity sermons and money generated from the children's farm labours falling short of the charity's outgoings, the trustees agreed, with some reservation, to government-funded places.

By 1850, 39% of the farm's 100 admissions were government funded. Three years later, more than half of the 168 boys' places were paid for by the state.

Rainer, which celebrates its 200th anniversary this week, defends its even closer financial reliance on government, which now accounts for more than 80% of its income. "There is no conflict . . . between the flexibility and trust the voluntary agencies are supposedly able to offer young people and the constraints of contract delivery," said its chief executive, Joyce Moseley, recently. "It is the structure of those contracts that matter."

She also drew attention to the origins of the Rainer Foundation - set up in 1876 by Frederic Rainer, a Church of England Temperance Society volunteer - as a voluntary probation service. In 1907, the service was effectively nationalised. With government now looking for charities to play a greater role in the criminal justice system, it seems we have come full circle.