Child Custody Numbers ‘Too High’

More children are being locked up in England and Wales, according to the charity Barnardo’s. There has been a five-fold surge in the use of custody for 10 to 14-year-olds from 1996-2006, said the charity.

This is despite no significant increase in serious crime. Barnardo’s is calling for sentencing policy to be overhauled.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said just three in 100 young people convicted of offences receive custodial sentences.

A spokesman added that custodial sentences for under 14s were a last resort.

Preventative work

Before 1994, under 15s in England and Wales could be sentenced to custody only if they had committed serious or violent offences such as rape, assault or burglary.

But successive legal changes have made it easier for children to be locked up, in secure units or secure homes run by local councils, for driving or drunk and disorderly offences, for example.

They can also be given custodial sentences for breaching behavioural orders.

Barnardo’s said the 550% rise in the use of custody for children had created an “expensive and ineffective” criminal justice strategy, and had resulted in children “being written off” by the age of 12.

Its study into child custody, Locking up or giving up?, based on data from 1996-2006, found only 7% of the 572 custodial sentences given to 10 to 14-year-olds in 2006 were for “grave” or “violent” offences.

The charity says the number of children and young people imprisoned in England and Wales is the third highest in Europe, behind only the Russian Federation and the Ukraine.

According to the report, holding a child in custody for a year can cost as much as £185,780 – the same as six years’ schooling at Eton College.

Barnardo’s said 80% of children in custody had been excluded from school and locking them up was ineffective – 78% of 10 to 14-year-olds will re-offend within 12 months of being released.

Unjustifiable custody

Martin Narey, Barnardo’s chief executive, and former director general of the Prison Service, called for a “drastic reduction” in the use of custody for very young children.

“Barnardo’s are not naive: we recognise that children committing grave crimes need to be incarcerated,” he said.

“But the explosion in the use of custody for very young children when youth offending has not been growing is inexplicable, unjustifiable and unnecessary.

“It is often the most vulnerable young people in society who end up in the criminal justice system, and despite this only 5% of the £445m spent by the Youth Justice Board (YJB) was invested in preventative work.”

Barnardo’s wants a change in sentencing thresholds so that a child under 15 cannot be sent to custody unless they have committed grave or violent crimes. It claims this would save the government £27.5 million a year.

They also want local authorities to carry the full costs for those children sentenced to custody.

It says there is currently a strong disincentive for councils to invest in preventative services because the YJB meets the costs of custodial sentences.

Mr Narey is set to debate the issue with the Justice Secretary Jack Straw at the Labour Conference in Manchester.