Ghost of Darwin stalks our justice system

Nick Cater, a consultant, speaker and writer:

I usually defend the public and third sectors, especially if they - to paraphrase charities minister Ed Miliband - know their strengths and work well in partnership without much overlap. But is overlap the problem, or is it the yawning gaps left by insufficient investment, wilting political will and a lack of confidence in operational competence?

I once witnessed an unprovoked assault. When the teenage assailant was due before the Youth Offending Panel, I used background knowledge of the boy to submit a letter to the panel's case worker. I hoped to encourage the state or charities to act, offering alternatives to hanging round the streets late at night, using drugs or alcohol and assaulting passers-by.

So I asked if there were ways to encourage him back to education, towards training and employment, or into sports, volunteering or other constructive activities. No useful response came back.

I wrote again. What preventive or treatment programmes could he attend to tackle any drink-drugs problem, and was help possible for his violence or with more general ethical issues about his behaviour? Again, nothing. Because the teenager was among a wider crowd of younger kids and needed guidance as one of many siblings in a fractured family, what could be done to contact and engage his friends and relatives? Zilch; nada.

Perhaps my mistake was to espouse tabloid values by suggesting an apology to past victims and a curfew to stop him finding future prey. The acronym Asbo may have passed my lips.

A guilty plea, no court case and a supervision order left his motive, problems and needs, and how others could be protected in future, apparently unexplored by the justice system. At no stage, as far as I could discover, did any part of the voluntary sector - youth groups, volunteering organisations, drugs counselling, job training - get invited or offer to get involved with the boy. I, too, let the matter drop.

The teenager passed out of his supervision order without further offences being recorded and is probably hidden in the statistics of supposedly successful outcomes. But he later died following a fit after taking drugs while drinking under age in a pub, any help delayed by his friends, who called a relative to take him home rather than dialling 999 for an ambulance.

A Darwinian solution, or a monstrous failure of state and third sector to create systems that will catch those slipping through the cracks?

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