Plea to reduce child inmates follows a spate of jail suicides

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The Independent Online

Young offenders at serious risk of harming themselves are being locked up although they are too vulnerable for life behind bars, the head of the Youth Justice Board (YJB) admitted yesterday.

Following a spate of suicides among children in custody in recent years and fears that the number of teenagers behind bars could be about to rise, Rod Morgan delivered a grim warning of the pressures faced by the youth justice system. In an interview with The Independent, he appealed to the courts to jail fewer youngsters and called for extra resources to be found for children with severe mental health problems. Twenty-seven children have died in custody since 1990, including two last year, prompting the United Nations to accuse Britain of failing to respect the human rights of young offenders.

Professor Morgan said the YJB was responsible for "some of the most traumatised kids in our society", acknowledging it was handling children who should be sectioned under the Mental Health Act. He said: "There are young people in the system who are not appropriately placed and are vulnerable - some of them should be in mental health facilities." The problem was caused by the "grave shortage" of secure accommodation for children with severe mental health needs and a tendency for other public services to wash their hands of them, he said.

Professor Morgan, a former chief inspector of probation, said efforts were being made to house young offenders in "smaller, child-centred units" and to improve accommodation and staffing standards. But he said: "My main task, and the main concern of my board, is working as hard as we can to persuade the courts there are viable alternatives to the use of custody, so we can have fewer children in custody and do a better job with them."

With about 2,700 children locked up, Britain has among the highest incarceration rates for young offenders in western Europe. Progress at reducing the numbers has stalled in the past 12 months.

Professor Morgan expressed alarm over a "huge increase" in the number of children brought before courts under the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, which requires automatic sentences for repeat offenders. He said children were finding themselves criminalised for minor offences. He also raised fears over the impact of antisocial behaviour orders (Asbos), under which youngsters who breach the orders can be jailed, on the numbers in custody. "We need to ensure ... we go for the Asbos not as a first resort, but as a last resort," he added.