Prisons becoming ‘colleges of crime’ amid rise in young offenders

PRISONS are becoming “colleges of crime” for too many young offenders in Wales, it was claimed last night, as new figures on the number of teenagers being jailed emerged.

Youth Justice Board statistics for England and Wales revealed a contrasting picture, with both the highest and lowest rates of custodial sentence this side of the border.

One in every 130 16 and 17-year-olds in Merthyr Tydfil was jailed in 2009-10, meaning youths in the town are more likely to be imprisoned than those living in Manchester and inner-city areas of London such as Hackney, Southwark and Lambeth.

In Pembrokeshire, only one in 6,000 teens was put behind bars in the same period.
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Map shows the number of custodial sentences handed out to 16 and 17-year-olds, per 1,000 population across England and Wales

Cardiff, with the next highest rate in Wales, sends one in 317 16 and 17-year-olds into custody.

The figures were branded unacceptable by Penelope Gibbs, director of the Prison Reform Trust’s Out of Trouble programme.

She said: “Merthyr Tydfil has the highest use of custody for under-18 year olds in England and Wales, higher than any inner city area.

“Although youth crime is a problem in Merthyr, we are concerned that such consistently high levels of imprisonment are neither fair nor effective.

“One look at the unacceptably high reconviction rates for this age group reveals that, too often, prison acts as a college of crime.”

Senior lecturer in criminology & criminal justice at the University of Wales, Newport, John Deering said there were a number of factors responsible, from poverty, unemployment and housing issues, to individual choices.

But he said the culture of the courts in the area was also very important.

He said: “The courts are very inconsistent across the country. Merthyr has a bit of a reputation for being a bit of a punitive region.”

A report by crime prevention charity Nacro Cymru, commissioned by the Welsh Government, suggests magistrates in Merthyr Tydfil may be tougher than in other areas.

The report said: “Magistrates had strong views about the local community; a recurring theme in the interviews with them was the indication that certain behaviours will not be tolerated and those that transgress will be made an example of.

“Although it is difficult to make firm connections, this may well play a part in sentencing decisions.”

The situation may have worsened in 2009-10, with the report noting a noticeably shorter history from first conviction to custody and less chance of receiving repeat community sentences than those from 2007-08.

It found offending by young people in Merthyr has been on a clear upward trajectory since 2009-10, adding that the reasons for this are unclear.

The number of violent offences has also been rising, though it is still lower than the national average.

A Welsh Government spokeswoman said the report was commissioned to explore why some localities have higher than average rates of custody, work identified as a priority under the All Wales Youth Offending Strategy Delivery Plan 2009-11, and which was also a recommendation of the Communities and Culture Committee Inquiry report.

She said: “Youth justice is not devolved to Wales.

“However the Welsh Government has a vital interest since devolved matters such as education, health and social services have a significant bearing on the prevention and reduction of youth crime.

“The number of Welsh children and young people in custody has steadily declined since 2007, falling to 114 by February 2010.

“This reduction reflects the work that has already been undertaken. Our close working relationship with the Youth Justice Board in Wales and effective local partnership have been key to this progress.”

She said the Welsh Government remains committed to reducing the number of young people who enter the criminal justice system in the first place.

YJB chief executive John Drew said: “Whether or not a young person is sentenced to custody is at the discretion of the court and decisions can be influenced by many factors such as the severity of the offence.

“The YJB believes that while it is vital that young people who commit offences should be punished for their actions, custody should only be used as a last resort, for the most serious of crimes.

“We are committed to working with magistrates to ensure they have confidence in the wide range of robust community sentences available.”