Ministry of Justice data reveals that 170 children aged under 18 in Portsmouth were cautioned by police or sentenced in court in the year to March 2020.
Between them, the children and teenagers were involved in more than 550 offences across the city.
When looked at per 10,000 population the data shows that Portsmouth has the highest rate of children cautioned or sentenced, and the highest rate of youth offences in the south east.
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The city has more than 18,000 young people aged between 10 and 17has a higher rate than cities with comparable numbers of young people, such as Southampton, Brighton, and Slough.
The rate is even higher than any London borough over the period – although the actual number of children involved in crime is more similar to less-populated areas.
Over the last two years, The News has repeatedly covered high-profile incidents of youth crime and disorder, ranging from a youth riot at the Hot Walls during the summer of 2019 to children as young as 12 involved in county line drug dealing.
The recently-elected police and crime commissioner for Hampshire and former Portsmouth councillor, Donna Jones, said the high rate was ‘concerning’ and pledged to work with other authorities to tackle the ‘complex’ issue.
She said: ‘The youth offending rates in Portsmouth are concerning.
‘They are higher than other parts of the south east and clearly more needs to be done.
‘Often with built up urban areas, the mix of crimes and effects on young people can be complex.
‘When you factor in Portsmouth is a relatively small geographical area, it makes it easy for young people to be exposed to negative influences.
‘It starts with intervention through schools from an early age. Making young people aware of the harm and effect of carrying knives and taking drugs from 12 years upwards is key.
‘But, in order for there to be any real and meaningful change, schools and the police need to be supported by parents.
‘Parents play a key role in identifying changes in children’s behaviours and guiding them on making the right decisions in their teenage years.’
The importance of parenting was also stressed by Councillor Dave Ashmore, the city council’s cabinet member for community safety and environment, who pointed to the recent incident of a break-in at the Southsea Model Village.
Just a day after the attraction was trashed by vandals, a group of teenagers were caught on CCTV trespassing on the site – before they were identified and made to apologise to the owners by their mothers.
Cllr Ashmore said: ‘What I really liked was the resolve of the parents to bring their children back.
‘We saw some restorative justice.’
The councillor said the local authority is working to provide and support a series of youth initiatives across the city, providing early intervention for young people at risk of becoming offenders.
He said: ‘We have got the Street Strong Youth Project, which delivers detached youth support across the city.
‘We have Pompey In The Community, Motiv8, and the Active Communities Network – it’s always about positive engagement.’
But more work needs to be done to support families with children at risk of falling into crime, according to Dr Simon Edwards at the University of Portsmouth, who set up a mentor programme for at-risk children excluded from school in 2019.
He said: ‘To what extent are there wider issues that are triggering this?
‘Covid-19 has had a big impact with youth centres being closed.
‘What we have found is there is not necessarily a conscious choice to become involved in crime.
‘What we find working with young people is that it coincides with lots of other issues...and there is a trigger. It may be the people they are hanging around.’
Primarily working with families around Lancing in West Sussex, Dr Edwards says parent and carer networks across Portsmouth have called for his mentor scheme to be brought to the city due to its ‘astonishing’ results.
He said: ‘It's quiet unique. We have people who have experience working with you people at the margins or have been excluded themselves.
‘We have six mentors and the first thing we do is listen to the young people and their parents. We create
‘With a lot of the families, there’s an undiagnosed illness or a family tragedy.
‘What we do is help them develop a space where they can calm down and really think about what is going on and reorient themselves. Then we act as advocates when meeting social services and schools.
‘One person hadn’t been at school for six years and is now back in education.
‘His younger brother hadn't been at school for five years - now he's full time for the last year since we started working with him.’
Understanding the ‘vulnerability’ of children and young people involved in crime was a key commitment of police working across the city, according to district commander for Portsmouth, Superintendent Clare Jenkins.
She said: ‘We are committed to recognising the vulnerability of children and young people who may be involved in crime. While they may have been identified through offending, the same child may also be a victim of crime, and we should not unnecessarily criminalise children. Hence the outcomes for those being helped by the Youth Offending Team are not always criminal in nature.
‘The Ministry of Justice data shows that the number of children that have contact with Portsmouth’s Youth Offending Team is high per 10,000 population, but the actual number of children is similar to less densely populated areas like West Sussex, and lower than other areas in the south east.
‘It’s also important to remember that Portsmouth has a younger demographic compared to many other areas of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.’
The city has seen the number of first-time entrants into the Youth Justice System drop from 364 in 2009 to 79 in 2019.
A major partnership effort was launched in the wake of the Hotwalls riot by Portsmouth police and city council.
This year the force is running Operation Nautical to tackle anti-social behaviour in the summer.