More than 1,000 children jailed for breaching Asbos

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The Independent Online

An increasing number of children are being criminalised by the justice system, it was claimed yesterday, as new figures showed that more than 1,000 youngsters have been jailed for an average of six months each for breaching anti-social behaviour orders.

Penal reformers and children's groups warned last night that the heavy-handed use of Asbos against youngsters risked turning them into criminals in adult life. And new figures showed that 986 children aged 10 to 17 were jailed for breaking Asbos between 2000, when they were launched, and the end of 2006. Another 300 to 400 youngsters are thought to have joined the total in 2007 and 2008.

The figures emerged as a report warned that the move towards instant justice has fuelled a huge rise in the number of children and others brought into the criminal justice system.

Professor Rod Morgan, a former chief inspector of probation and chairman of the Youth Justice Board, said the increase in fixed penalty notices and cautions was expanding the number of people with criminal records. Asbos are civil orders, but breaking their terms can leave a youngster in court and facing a criminal record.

Opponents point out that 30 per cent of children given Asbos have been diagnosed with mental health problems or learning difficulties, making it difficult for them to understand their orders.

Almost half of those locked up for breaching their Asbos have been jailed for four months. The average sentence was 6.4 months, compared with the 4.9 months handed to adults.

In his report, Professor Morgan warned: "There is a good deal of anecdotal evidence, for example, that behaviour, particularly that of children and young people, is being criminalised which arguably would be better dealt with informally, and in previous times was."

Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "The last decade has seen an ever-increasing criminalisation of our young people ... It is totally unacceptable to send a single child to prison for breaching an Asbo, let alone the 1,000 children who have been sent ... "

Tim Bateman, senior policy development officer at Nacro, the crime reduction charity, added: "We shouldn't be locking them up for behaviour which isn't even necessarily criminal."

Ross Hendry, the head of Public Policy at the children's charity NCH, said: "We must remember that young people are more often the victims of crime not the perpetrators and often want to tackle crime just as much as anyone else."