Three years ago, South Yorkshire had the worst record in the country for young people getting dealt with through the legal system for the first time, a process known to see one in four re-offend within 12 months and which has a negative impact on career chances because even a caution counts as a criminal record, ruling out careers such as teaching and the armed forces.
But work to find alternative ways of dealing with some offenders has sent the rate tumbling and the county now stands mid-way on the national league table.
During the 2015/16 year, 505 young people out of every 100,000 in the county were dealt with through the criminal justice system, a police caution or court action, for the first time.
That compared to 479 in North Yorkshire, 395 in West Yorkshire and 312 in Humberside.
By September last year, numbers in South Yorkshire were down to 242, with 284 in West Yorkshire, 253 in Humberside and 210 in North Yorkshire.
Success is South Yorkshire is being credited with the use of a triage system, to examine individual cases and identify those where alternatives to traditional punishment may be a more effective solution.
Details of the scheme were put to South Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Dr Alan Billings, at a meeting of his Public Accountability Board, where he holds the police service to account.
Details were provided by Doncaster’s Youth Offending Team, one of four in the county.
Chief Constable Stephen Watson told the meeting: “It is not going soft on youth crime. All the evidence is just overwhelmingly compelling that if you criminalise young people, their life chances take a real turn for the worse.
“If you do the wrong thing at the wrong time you are almost guaranteed to child will go on to have a rubbish life.
“You have to balance that against the victim but we are talking here about incidents where in times gone by people would have taken a simple, pragmatic, view.
“There are thousands of decent kids who, at some point in their life will nick something from a shop. Local restoration, have the child apologise, is a pragmatic way to deal with them,” he said.
Even a police caution remained on a criminal record for some professions, he said.
“You will never be a teacher, never be a lawyer, never get into the armed forces because you did what thousands of other kids do, and get caught.
“You have to be sensible about it. You have some young people who have started to commit offences which are serious and have to be dealt with through the criminal justice system.
“It is sorting out the wheat from the chaff and being pragmatic. We are giving someone a chance.
“If you look that gift horse in the mouth, the fact you have been given that chance is reported to the courts and they will amplify the punishment because you have been given a chance,” he said.
Work is now being carried out in conjunction with Sheffield Hallam University to try to clarify the impact of the new system on re-offending rates, though the task is made more complex because of short period since the new arrangements were put in place.
Confirming reliable figures is also more difficult, because those involved in alternative projects to divert them from future offending do not appear on the Police National Computer, making it more difficult to collate information.
Police also insist there will be ‘one size fits all’ approach to how young offenders are dealt with, to help avoid calculating criminals from using children to offend on their behalf in the knowledge a first offence would not result in a criminal record.
*For every 100,000 young people in 2015/16, numbers entering the criminal justice system in Doncaster were 610, 530 in Rotherham, 479 in Sheffield and 398 in Barnsley.
By September last year the figures were 296 in Sheffield, 263 in Barnsley, 194 in Rotherham and 171 in Doncaster.