Letter: Children in prison

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Children in prison

Sir: The debate that has raged over the comments of Sir David Ramsbotham regarding the transfer of young people who are serving custodial sentences from secure childcare facilities to prison is uncomfortable but overdue ("Bulger killers `should be freed' ", 29 October). It is not my purpose to comment on the case that Sir David referred to, but to draw attention to the many children between 10 and 17 who are given long-term detention each year for offences such as burglary, arson or indecent assault. There were 722 such sentenced in 1997.

Under current policy, those who are 15 when sentenced are most likely to be sent straight to prison service custody rather than to a local authority secure child care unit. Very young children are likely to begin their sentence in secure child care facilities but are increasingly being transferred, on attaining the age of 15, to prison service units, mixing with young adults aged up to 20, and the current rate of increase is considerable.

The National Association for Youth Justice has long campaigned for treating children and adolescents who have committed offences so serious that they lose their liberty as just that, children and adolescents, whose development is still incomplete. Research now suggests that as many as 75 per cent of this group of children suffered abuse through their earlier years.

A child's development is inexorable and the opportunity to reduce dangerousness must not be missed. There is nothing gained for society by putting our youngest prisoners in surroundings that are more likely to further brutalise that development than to nurture it.

It is time to focus debate on whether we really want our society to continue to deal with children by such harsh and desolate punitive measures, and to take our chance on what sort of young adult finally emerges into freedom.


Deputy Chair

National Association for Youth Justice