Keeping young offenders in their locality could cut crime rates

It sounds on the surface like a particularly touch-feely solution to the problem of youth offending.

According to Lord Ramsbotham, teenage criminals should be spared the stark surrounding of young offender institutions and instead be sent the way of new neighbourhood academies.

Under his plans, these new facilities would be within one hour of their home and most offenders would not even be held on site, but would stay with relatives nearby.

Some could have been forgiven for thinking Lord Ramsbotham is suffering the after effects of recent marathon sessions to iron out the details of the voting referendum, but his proposals are not the product of a fuzzy mind.

In a previous incarnation Lord Ramsbotham was both an officer in the British Army and Chief Inspector of Prisons.

He's a man who knows a lot about discipline and having spent six years dissecting the penal system, he's come to the conclusion that there must be a better way of dealing with young offenders.

He's not alone. England locks up more youngsters than any country in Europe, but with reoffending rates nothing to be proud of – four out of five youngsters released from custody go on to reoffend – there has been talk for years about overhauling the system.

Lord Ramsbotham will today put the flesh on the bones when he outlines his plans for the neighbourhood academies in detail.

The idea is nothing new. Back in 1990, Lord Justice Woolf in his report on the Strangeways prison riot talked of the need for what he called community jails, places which put a much greater emphasis on returning prisoners to the community. He also argued for keeping inmates close to their homes and in touch with the services provided by local authorities. With Lord Ramsbotham having taken up the baton, many believe the dreams of successive prison reformers may finally come to pass.

"If Charles Dickens visited a young offenders' institution today he would find the environment very familiar," said David Chesterton, chair of the steering group set up to look into neighbourhood academies. "At present we take our most vulnerable, disadvantaged and brutalised children and young people, disconnect them from all the positive influences and then express surprise when they go on offending. We must do something different. These academies are an imaginative new approach, which would give these children a chance to succeed."

Most are agreed that something needs to be done, but the final stumbling block may well be financial. The cost of just one academy, complete with a secure unit, would come in at about 49m. However, potential sources of funding have apparently been identified, so it seems Lord Ramsbotham is not going to let a little thing like money stand in his way.

"Our current youth justice system is failing the public," he said. "The numbers of young people at risk of offending through parental neglect, truancy, lack of meaningful employment, drugs, violence and other causes is a threat to our national future.

"The academy offers a practical and purposeful alternative that must be given a chance to prove that locally provided solutions are better than nationally imposed ones. I hope the Government is sensible enough to now support and enable this venture."