Howard presses ahead with child jails plan

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The Independent Online
The Home Office is to push ahead with proposals for five "child jails" for persistent young offenders despite having planning permission for only two of the units.

Contracts for the building and running of the secure centres will go out to tender in the next few weeks, Michael How-ard, the Home Secretary, announced yesterday.

He was speaking on the eve of the introduction of a further tranche of the Criminal Justice Act. From today, legislation will come into effect to crack down on all forms of harassment, witness intimidation, offensive telephone calls, and obscene photographs of children.

Other new powers include allowing police to stop illegal raves, increased sentences for young offenders, tougher penalties for selling illegal videos, and laws to punish parents whose children fail to carry out community sentences.

The new powers mean that 75 per cent of the Act is now in force. Among the measures still to be implemented is the setting up of five privately run secure training units for 12- to 14-year- olds. However, three of the proposed secure units are still without planning permission because of fierce opposition from local residents.

Only one, at Cookham Wood in Kent, has gained local authority approval. At Gringley in Nottinghamshire, where there is already a prison, planning permission is not needed. Permission has been refused for centres at Onley in Warwickshire, Medomsley in Co Durham, and Kidlington near Oxford.

Nevertheless, Mr Howard said: "We are on course with the secure training centres. We are in the advance stages of obtaining planning permission for the other three."

He also outlined laws giving police wider powers to deal with all forms of harassment. A new offence of witness intimidation will carry a maximum sentence of five years or an unlimited fine. There are new measures to deal with people who possess indecentphotographs of children, or simulate indecent photographs on computer and traffic them.

Other clauses in the Act include tightening up the law on race hate and making the distribution of racially offensive material an arrestable offence; bringing in a maximum six months' jail or a £5,000 fine for offensive telephone callers; and doubling totwo years the maximum sentence of detention in a young offenders' institution for 15- to 17-year-olds.

New laws allowing courts to pass prison sentences without first considering background reports were condemned as a "retrograde step which places expediency before justice", by the Penal Affairs Consortium, an alliance of 24 organisations.