Youth Jail Population ‘To Reach All-Time High’

New figures show the number of young people in prison is likely to reach an all-time high this summer, pushing the youth custody system to “saturation point”. Official figures released today by the Youth Justice Board (YJB) revealed that there were 2,878 under-18s in jail last month – the highest figure for February since comparable records began in 2000.

The crime reduction charity Nacro said the fact that the jail population was already high so early in the year should ring “serious alarm bells”.

A spokeswoman told Guardian Unlimited: “The general pattern has been that the figure drops in December then rises gradually to peak in summer. But this year although there was a bit of a drop in December, we are already seeing a rise.

“Serious alarm bells should be going off, because if we are at this stage now, the likely trend is to go up and up, which means we are likely to see record figures in the summer.”

Nacro is calling for emergency measures, including the early release of all young offenders and greater use of community sentences to relieve numbers in youth jails. It said those serving between eight and 18 months should be freed one month early and those serving 18 months or more should be released two months early.

It also called for a concerted effort to reduce custody in London, where levels of youth incarceration are particularly high – especially amongst young ethnic minority offenders.

The chief executive, Paul Cavadino, said: “Juvenile custody is now at saturation point and urgent action must be taken to tackle the young offender population crisis. The evidence shows that excessive use of custody does nothing to reduce youth crime. This country’s obsession with punishment is damaging the prospects for diverting young people from crime.”

A YJB spokeswoman confirmed that custody figures for February were at an all-time high.

The former YJB chairman Rod Morgan resigned in January, complaining that youth courts and children’s prisons were being swamped with minor offenders who were “cluttering up” the system.

Nacro estimates that the youth jail system’s capacity is just over 3,500. Campaigners fear overcrowding could compromise prisoners’ rehabilitation and put vulnerable young people at risk by having to serve sentences large distances from their families.

Of the total figure for February, 211 of those locked up were girls and 2,667 boys; 614 were on remand and the rest had been sentenced. The highest ever youth prison population was 3,175 in October 2002.

The adult prison population reached 79,983 last Friday.