What does a tough policeman do with a 14-year-old student from an unhappy home background who is caught shoplifting a box of chocolates? Charge the youthful miscreant, drag him before the courts and see him fall into the maw of our official system of justice, crime and punishment? No way, says Ian Seabourne. That's the last thing advocated by the district commander of Tuen Mun. Instead of forcing young offenders before the courts, where they may be legally branded for life, the veteran policeman steers the teenagers into Project X. Project X throws a friendly arm around the shoulder of young offenders, gives them and their parents advice, hopefully diverts a high-spirited but wayward youngster from crime and triads and gives them a fresh start. Run with the help of former executive councillor Professor Edward Chen, president of Ling Nan College which has its new campus near Tuen Mun, the spearhead of Project X is not the police, but students. Specially trained police, however, keep a close and cautionary eye on the programme, which has scored significant success. The aim, Mr Seabourne explains, is to provide a caring elder sister or brother as a role model and guide for troubled boys and girls in their early teens. It is an imaginative and ambitious extension of the Superintendents' Discretion Scheme under which a senior policeman is able to give a stiff warning to a juvenile offender and a warning to his parents. Project X takes this process significantly further. 'We're not dealing with hardened criminals, but with foolish and wayward teenagers who have become involved in minor offences,' Mr Seabourne notes. 'We want to keep them out of courts and out of trouble. This could be the most effective way of doing that.' Tuen Mun has had a dreadful reputation as a hotbed of crime. Of its 430,000 people, 150,000 are aged 21 or younger. There is not much for them to do; entertainment facilities are sparse though in the past five years the Regional Council and other public agencies and private companies have expanded the recreational choices. That lack of resources causes young people to seek fun elsewhere. It is largely this lack of facilities that social workers, psychologists, teachers, parents and the police blame on a comparatively high juvenile crime wave. Yes, Mr Seabourne admits, last year the police made 3,194 arrests, for offences ranging from bookmaking and gambling to murder. Of these, about half were of people 21 and under. The 750 children aged 16 or under who were detained by police and the 681 young people between 16 and 21 were grabbed for mostly minor offences. 'Just because we arrest more young people, does this mean we are solving the crime situation or best serving the public?' Mr Seabourne asked his fellow officers and community leaders. Not necessarily, were the answers. Under a policy of Programme Management, police headquarters encourages policemen throughout Hong Kong to come up with fresh initiatives to make society better. In Tuen Mun, police devised ideas to involve social organisations and government agencies. Mr Seabourne assigned his inspectors to cover the 37 secondary schools in the district. Three times a year, the police officers go to the schools to give straightforward talks to youngsters. Texts are prepared and memorised, but the chats on triads, drugs and behaviour are informal. At the pinnacle of these police efforts is Project X, which largely deals with troublesome youth who have had an earlier police warning. 'You can't give them three warnings,' Mr Seabourne says. This is the last chance for boys or girls who have strayed; after that, the mainstream processes of crime and punishment switch-in. Since Ling Nan opened its campus in Tuen Mun, not a single one of its students has been in trouble. Asking the tertiary institute to get involved with Project X was a gamble that has paid big dividends. This year, 21 voluntary counsellors, mostly girls, are assigned to troubled youngsters. 'The Ling Nan students come from similar backgrounds to the kids in Tuen Mun,' Mr Seabourne explains. 'They can relate to each other. It's an arm of comfort around the shoulder and a sympathetic ear.' The students, in their early 20s and about six to eight years older than those they try to help, are trained by police and social workers. And it seems to work. At a cost of $500,000 (funded from police reserves, aid from Rotary, Lions and other service clubs and local companies), Project X has kept dozens of young people out of court. Figures suggest that once a youngster has received guidance under Project X, he or she is not likely to get into trouble again. Local civic leaders back the scheme. It has cut down minor crime on the streets of Tuen Mun, they say. And investing $500,000 to advise young people seems to many people like a sane and cost-effective way of stopping young people from turning to crime.