Howard plan for child jails faces collapse

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The Independent Online
Home Office officials doubt that Michael Howard's scheme to build five "child jails" for persistent young offenders will go ahead as planned.

Four of the proposed secure units, a key component of the Home Secretary's criminal justice policy, are now bogged down in planning difficulties because of fierce opposition from local residents. Only one, at Cookham Wood prison in Kent - home of Moors murderer Myra Hindley - has gained local authority approval.

Officials fear there will not be time before the next general election to find new sites or win lengthy planning battles.

Labour has never supported the idea of privately-run "little prisons" for 12-14 year olds, arguing instead that money should be provided immediately to increase the number of local authority secure places.

The demise of the much-heralded tough secure units would prove a major embarrassment for the increasingly accident- prone Home Secretary.

The Government first came up with the idea two years ago in a bid to combat a perceived increase in juvenile crime. The proposal for five units - each to take about 40 youngsters - met with strong opposition from child welfare groups, probation officers and penal reformers. However, where such high level dissent failed, the "not-in-my-backyard" sentiment seems to have succeeded.

Planning permission has been refused for centres in Onley, Warwickshire, Medomsley, in Co Durham, and Kidlington, near Oxford. At Gringley, in Nottinghamshire, where there is already a prison, the Home Office has applied for a certificate of "lawful use"- but is still likely to require planning permission to modify the buildings.

Only Cookham Wood could be ready to take children by the end of next year, but having one jail on the Kent coast to take children from all over the country - and therefore miles from their families - would be of limited value.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said yesterday that plans for the units had been pushed through in response to a "myth" of a juvenile crime wave. In fact, there had been a marked drop in juvenile crime. In 1980, the numbers of 10- to 16-year-olds convicted of offences totalled 128,087. By 1993, that figure had dropped to 29,260 while the numbers of cautions had remained fairly static. "Mr Howard has been hoist by his own petard. He created this myth about juvenile monsters and now nobody wants them living in their neighbourhood."

Alun Michael, Labour's Home Affairs spokesman, said yesterday: "The mess that ministers have made of this proposal is even worse than we predicted. The Government is now paying the price of that failure."

A Home Office spokesman would only say officials were considering planning options.

Legislation for the new jails was contained in the contentious Justice and Public Order Act, which came into force early November.As well as child jails, other provisions in the act have also run into difficulties, including prison privatisation and the new police caution introduced after the Act's abolition of the right to sil ence.

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