News Analysis: Young offenders are to blame for the majority of crime in the UK and 80 per cent of them reoffend. Barnet's Youth Offending Team, however, has found on average 70 per cent of the youngsters they deal with commit no further crimes. SARAH MILLS reports.

With blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, Kimberley is an attractive 15-year-old girl with a good future.

However, this was not always the case. In the winter of 1999, she spent most days high on crack cocaine and ended up stabbing a friend who had upset her by sleeping with someone she knew.

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"I was 13 years old when I started mixing with an older crowd of 16 to 20-year-olds. They introduced me to drink and drugs and it got to the stage when I was drinking a bottle of vodka a day and was addicted to crack," Kimberley, from Barnet, said.

"I went out shoplifting in Barnet shops regularly to feed my habit and never went to school.

"I'd take any drugs I could get my hands on like Es, trips and speed but on this particular day I was coming down from crack which made me really agitated. I saw my friend and stabbed her twice. I called an ambulance afterwards and waited with her until it arrived and four hours later I was picked up by the police."

Kimberley said: "What I'd done only hit me when I was at Colindale police station and they initially charged me with attempted murder. However, Barnet's Youth Offending Team [YOT] visited me when I was on remand and I ended up meeting them twice weekly for ten months. I've been clean now for six months and I want to work in health and beauty. I've also moved away from those people I mixed with and am rebuilding my life."

Kimberley was lucky. She has a lenient judge to thank for being sentenced to a three-year-supervision order at Barnet Youth Court in November last year having already spent around ten months in custody. This is where Barnet's YOT came into action.

Barnet YOT was established under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 and deals with up to 70 young offenders at any one time. With ten staff which include police officers, probation officers, health workers, social workers and education officers they focus on the victims of crime and on changing offenders' behaviour.

YOT manager Kate Malleson has worked as a qualified probation officer for 19 years. She says: "The most important thing for us is to assess every young person brought to our attention in relation to their needs which may be educational, health and other areas such as their personal and family circumstances."

The YOT assessment takes account of a young person's offences, family relationships, drug or alcohol problems and general lifestyle. This can help determine the specific problems of the individual and whether they pose a risk to others. It also helps the team plan a number of programmes to prevent reoffending by confronting young people with the consequences of their actions.

"There are various programmes in place one of which is the final warning system. So when a young person is arrested they'll be subject to a final warning programme which can include reparation to the victim and an apology for the harm they've caused," Kate said.

"Our skills help us relate to the offenders by maintaining our authority but in a way that we're understood by the young person. We work towards the problems causing them to reoffend and how to help them become a responsible member of society."

The team sees young offenders up to twice weekly depending on the order they are given. Parents are encouraged to get involved to help them deal with their children and come to terms with what they've done.

"Parents find it helpful as they meet people in a similar situation and don't feel so isolated. They can become more involved and try to tackle their child's problems in a positive way, " Kate said.

But just how effective are YOTs?

"I think they've got the potential to be very effective. The national picture is very encouraging. I've worked with adolescent offenders for 20 years and so far here we've had a 70 per cent success rate with regards to young people not reoffending, although we'll get a better picture when we get results from a national survey taking place at the end of the year," Kate said.

Such talk of rehabilitation may not enthuse some victims of crime. They may baulk at the idea that someone guilty of a serious offence such as Kimberley would be let off without a custodial sentence.

Barnet's Victim Support co-ordinator Loraine Buckingham said that attitudes differ, but it was important to remember that reducing reoffending rates now means fewer people becoming victims of crime in the future.

"Everybody is individual and victims are going to have different opinions on whether YOTs are effective although we believe anything that will stop young offenders from reoffending is excellent. However, it's up to the individual what part they'd play such as taking up a discussion with the offender."

The offender's name has been changed to protect her identity.