Youth Justice System ‘In Crisis’

{mosimage} The number of young people in custody in England and Wales has reached a record high, prompting warnings of a youth justice system “crisis”. The Youth Justice Board, which administers the system, said 3,350 youngsters were being held and action was needed to stop a “meltdown”.

Only a handful of beds were free, and children were being held hundreds of miles from their families, it said. The Home Office said the use of custody for those under 18 was a last resort.

{mosimage} The Youth Justice Board said the rise in numbers had caused an increased risk of self-harm and suicide by youngsters. It meant difficulties in running crime reduction courses aimed at preventing re-offending.

It also meant increasing numbers were being forced to share cells and youngsters were being transported around the country. Dozens of children and youngsters from London were held as far afield as South Yorkshire and the Scottish borders, said the board.

This is against rules that young offenders should not be held more than 50 miles from home. The board called for more use of schemes in which offenders are tagged and closely monitored in the community.

Chairman Rod Morgan said: “The youth justice system has just a handful of bed spaces left. We can’t simply put up a sign saying ‘No Vacancies’.

“Action is urgently needed to stop custody for young people going into meltdown.”

These sentiments were echoed by Chief Inspector of Prisons Anne Owers, and Children’s Commissioner and Professor Sir Albert Al Aynsely-Green.

Ms Owers said: “Every time I go into a custodial establishment, I see staff achieving amazing things in difficult circumstances with highly troubled young people.

“But I fear the system is approaching breaking point. And I am particularly concerned about the number of young people with mental illness who end up in our prisons because of the lack of adequate provision outside.”

Earlier this month a nine-hour riot at a young offenders institution in Shropshire saw an entire wing put out of action.

David Chater, from the young people’s charity Rainer, said there was an alternative to custody called “intensive supervision and surveillance”.

“Young people are signed up to something like 25 hours a week of education,” he said.

“They’re monitored the whole time, it’s very intensive, so it’s not a soft option, and obviously it’s far more cost-effective than custody – something like £6,000 for six months, as opposed to £50,000 for a place in a youth offenders’ institute.”

The Home Office said about 190,000 young people were dealt with by the police and courts each year but only 4% received a custodial sentence. However, public protection was its priority and it supported tough sentences for those judged to be a danger to the public, it said.

A rising adult prison population in England and Wales has recently led to prisoners being held in police cells, while the home secretary announced plans to use prison ships.