Call To Give Councils Control Over Youth Jails

Making councils responsible for the cost of youth custody could help reduce the rising number of juveniles locked up each year, a campaigning charity said today.

If local authorities had to pay for every child in their area who went to jail, it would give them a greater incentive to prevent offending and offer “robust alternatives to custody”, the Prison Reform Trust suggested.

The Youth Justice Board (YJB), which spends almost two-thirds of its £700m annual budget on custody, has been heavily criticised for presiding over a steep rise in the use of detention for non-violent young offenders.

The number of children sentenced to custody in England and Wales more than tripled between 1991 and 2006 and the UK now has the highest proportion of children in custody in Western Europe.

The charity’s report, Criminal Damage, says at least one third are locked up for non-violent crimes, such as breaking antisocial behaviour orders (asbos) or theft.

The call for a rethink chimes with early reports on government plans to refocus youth justice policy, as part of its youth crime action plan, due this summer.

The government is believed to be considering just such a plan to give councils control of youth detention costs.

And the children’s secretary, Ed Balls, is reported to have won a cabinet tussle to ensure a move away from the failing punitive approach to a welfare-oriented early intervention scheme to steer children in trouble away from crime.

Local authorities already control budgets for non-custodial sentences. Under the Prison Reform Trust plan, the YJB would continue to manage children’s jails, but with stronger links to the local authorities from which the children come.

The trust also suggests banning the imprisonment of under-18s for nonviolent offences and greater use of police and prosecutors’ discretion and restorative justice schemes to stop the criminalisation of troubled children.

They also want councils to be made to do more to stop children in care ending up in custody: 30% of imprisoned children have been in local authority care.

Juliet Lyon, the director of the trust, said: “How long are we going to put up with children’s depressing journey from family breakdown, school exclusion and local authority care through to prison, homelessness, unemployment and more crime when there are ways to intervene at every stage to enable young people to get their lives back on track?”

A spokesman for the Local Government Association welcomed calls to give councils responsibility for young offenders.

“However these proposals will only work if councils receive the funding and powers they need to do the job well,” he added.

“A lot can be done locally to reduce youth crime when the government and local groups work together led by councils and the police.”

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice and Department for Children, Schools and Families said: “The Prison Reform Trust is one of the key stakeholders we have consulted during the development of the youth crime action plan. No decisions on any issue have yet been made by ministers.

“To ensure public protection, custody should be available for serious and violent offenders. However, custody for under-18s is always a last resort.

“Only 3% of young people convicted by a court receive a custodial sentence and the government has expanded the range and intensity of community sentences available for young people, as an alternative to detention.

“Where possible, the government is keen to ensure that children and young people are not prosecuted through court where an alternative can be found.”