Courts get new power to lock up children

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The Independent Online
Children as young as 10 can be locked up for more than 14 years for crimes such as rape, grievous bodily harm and indecent assault, under legislation that comes into force today.

The changes follow a public outcry over a series of offences, including rape, by boys aged under 14, who, until now, could not be detained for long periods.

Also, under other new powers that came into force today, some criminals will have to wear electronic surveillance tags as part of their punishment.

The change in the punishment of juvenile offenders was introduced because, previously, children aged 10 to 13 could be sentenced to long-term detention in young offenders' institutions only for murder and manslaughter - as in the case of the James Bulgermurder.

Now this power has been extended for this age group to include other offences carrying a maximum sentence of 14 years' imprisonment for an adult. The offences that are included under the new powers in Section 16 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act are robbery, rape, causing grievous bodily harm, indecent assault, burglary of a dwelling and handling stolen goods.

Paul Cavadino, chairman of the Penal Affairs Consortium, an alliance of 24 penal affairs organisations, believes that the civil rather than the criminal courts should be used for violent and sexual offences, to avoid further long-term harm and brutalisation of young people.

"It is particularly disturbing that powers of long-term detention are being made available for children committing non-violent offences, such as burglary and handling stolen goods . . . it is difficult to see the justification for lengthy detention when a child's offences are non-violent," he added.

In addition to the extended sentencing powers, the Home Office intends to build five "child jails" for persistent young offenders. However, four of the secure units for 12- to 14-year-olds have already run into planning difficulty, casting doubts on their future.

Also, probation officers have questioned the need for the crackdown, pointing out that there has been a marked drop in juvenile crime since the early Eighties.

Under the second change in the law, magistrates and judges will be able to sentence criminals to a curfew in their own homes with the use of electronic surveillance tags. In March, the Home Office is to spend about £1.4m on three pilot trials in Manchester, Norfolk and Reading, Berkshire.

The new "curfew orders" can be given in combination with community service or a probation order for offences such as burglary and breaches of public order.

The convicted person will have to wear a tag, which is about the size of a diver's watch, around his or her ankle. It gives off radio signals through a communications unit at the offender's home. This is monitored electronically by private security guards.

The Penal Affairs Consortium argues that previous tagging failed to deter criminals, and was an expensive waste of money. It also says that more than half the people in a Home Office trial in 1989 (50 defendants were electronically monitored) breached bail.

This time, however, the Home Office says advances in technology mean the new equipment is far more user-friendly and reliable.