By Neil Puffett
Speaking at a youth crime conference staged by Plymouth University, Penelope Gibbs, director of the Prison Reform Trust’s Out of Trouble Campaign, said a number of factors are responsible for recent falls.
These include "subtle" work by the Youth Justice Board to get magistrates in youth courts to raise custody thresholds and pursue alternatives.
But without primary legislation to set clear thresholds for custody, changes in government policy and the effect of public opinion could lead to different decisions being made, she said.
"It is just about the decision of the court at the time and its ability to use custody is still incredibly wide," she said.
Tim Bateman, criminologist at the University of Bedfordshire, said legislation could impact on the culture of the courts but added that he believes raising the age of criminal responsibility could have a greater impact. He said that raising the age from 10 to 15 would require a new way of dealing with the issues of 10- to 14-year-olds in a welfare-driven way.
The massive changes such a step would drive, if implemented successfully, could result in a shift in public opinion on the way young offenders should be treated, he added.
"It would have a dramatic effect on the way we perceive problematic behaviour of children over the age of 10," he said.
Last month one of the country’s most senior police officers, Ian McPherson, suggested the age of criminal responsibility should be treated with greater flexibility, with greater emphasis placed on the maturity of offenders.