LONDON -- Stung by public anger over crimes by children, the government said Tuesday that suspects as young as 12 can be jailed while awaiting trial on charges such as car theft and burglary.
Home Secretary David Blunkett, the minister who oversees law enforcement, also proposed placing convicted offenders as young as 10 in special foster homes where they will be closely monitored.
"Crime is not restricted to those aged 12 and over," Blunkett said.
"One of the biggest challenges we face is how to deal with young offenders who believe that their age makes them untouchable, who flout the law, laugh at the police and leave court on bail free to offend again," he added.
Stories of "young yobs" have been a staple of the British press in recent months and there is growing public concern on the issue.
Newspapers have reported on two teen-age brothers accused of causing a crime wave in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare; an 11-year-old girl who was arrested 36 times in one year for vandalism; and the so-called "Terror Triplets" -- 13-year-old siblings who shopkeepers say wreaked havoc in Gillingham in southern England.
Police say young criminals laugh at the law, secure in the knowledge they can't be touched. Under British law, children as young as 10 can be held responsible for crimes, but offenders under 16 are not usually incarcerated even when convicted.
The new laws allowing youths 12 and over to be held while awaiting trial were approved by Parliament last year but have not yet been enforced. Blunkett said Tuesday they would take effect in June in London and nine other crime hotspots, and be extended across Britain by September.
Previously, children under 16 could not be incarcerated while awaiting trial unless charged with the most serious crimes. Blunkett said the new rules would target youths who commit "persistent but low-level crime."
While some argue Britain has spawned a generation of young hooligans, crime statistics are contradictory. Police have recorded a large increase in street crimes such as mobile-phone theft -- offenses committed largely by and against young people.
However, government youth-crime statistics for 1999 show the proportion of young offenders declining from 7,000 per 100,000 boys between 10 and 17 in 1981 to 5,400 per 100,000 in 1999.