CURBING crime among youth is emerging as a central issue in British politics, and John Major's government is having to defend itself against charges that its law and order policies are misguided and socially damaging.
The charges come from the government's political opponents, but also from senior judges and police officers. Two fresh factors give the debate urgency: a hard-line approach to crime announced last week by Michael Howard, the home secretary; and a sudden outbreak of violence by hundreds of young British soccer fans attending a World Cup qualifying match in the Netherlands on Oct. 13.
Mr. Major condemned the soccer hooliganism as ``disgusting and unacceptable'' and threw his full support behind his home secretary's bid to crack down on youthful crime in general.
Mr. Howard argues that the answer to rising crime levels among teenagers is to build more prisons and amend criminal law to make it easier for the courts to convict wrongdoers.
Predictably, his views are opposed by Tony Blair, the Labour opposition's spokesman on domestic issues. Mr. Blair says the hard-line approach is simplistic. Less predictable is a hail of criticism from judges and policemen who say crime-prevention programs aimed at young people must be part of the answer to checking juvenile crime.
The harshest attack so far on Howard's approach, which he unveiled at last week's annual Conservative Party conference, has come from Lord Woolf, one of Britain's most senior judges and the author of a path-breaking report on penal policy.
Lord Woolf calls the home secretary's approach ``short-sighted and irresponsible.'' Speaking to an audience of judges, police, and prison officers this week, he said: ``The easy option, which has a miserable record of failure, is to send more and more people to prison, regardless of the consequences, including the shocking waste of resources which could be spent elsewhere.''
The difficult option was to ``try to identify the underlying causes of criminal conduct'' and then set about tackling them.
Lord Woolf's official report on a 1990 riot at Strangeways Prison in Manchester is widely seen as a milestone in penal policy. It advocated shorter prison terms, heavier emphasis on rehabilitation, and fines for citizens who fail to take adequate measures to protect their own property. Many of the Woolf proposals seemed set to become official policy last year.
But after the Strangeways report, crime levels have risen steadily. Howard's 27-point formula for combatting criminality is a response to statistics showing that half of Britain's offenses are committed by people between the ages of 10 and 26.
In an enthusiastically received speech to the Conservative Party conference, Howard proposed building six new jails and several more secure institutions for persistent child offenders. He also promised tough new restrictions on bail, and the removal of a defendant's right to silence when accused of a crime.
Lord Woolf flatly opposes the Howard strategy.
The money the government planned to spend on building new prisons, Lord Woolf said, should be spent on ``crime prevention and community punishments severe enough to avoid a public perception that they were a soft alternative to jail.'' This approach drew support from senior policemen.
Greg Wilkinson, assistant chief constable of West Yorkshire, an urban area with high crime, said Howard was ``treating symptoms, not causes.''
``We live in a society which is acquisitive,'' Mr. Wilkinson added. ``We adults made it like that. Yet we wonder why children and youths end up acquisitive creatures.''
Crime statistics since the Conservatives came to power in 1979 do not work in the government's favor. They show that the number of crimes reported has doubled, and that the rate of crimes solved has fallen from 41 to 26 percent.