Sharp rise in young offenders at risk of suicide or self-harm

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The number of young offenders considered suicidal or highly vulnerable who were sent to jail last year has risen more than sevenfold in three years.

The number of young offenders considered suicidal or highly vulnerable who were sent to jail last year has risen more than sevenfold in three years.

New government figures for 2003-04 show that 3,337 teenagers sent to prison were deemed at risk of self-harm or had been bullied and abused, compared with 432 cases of at-risk girls and boys aged five to 18 who were placed in youth offending institutions in 2000-01.

The rising number of jail sentences comes amid concerns about the increased use of custody for thousands of young offenders, including those who have a history of self-harm. Fourteen-year-old Adam Rickwood last week became the youngest person to kill himself in a British jail. He was found hanging in his cell at Hassockfield, a privately run secure training centre in County Durham funded by the Youth Justice Board.

There are currently just under 3,000 children aged under 18 in custody, with thousands passing through the system every year. The majority are in Prison Service-run Young Offender Institutions (YOIs), where there have been 11 self-inflicted deaths over the past five years.

The Youth Justice Board, which oversees the youth justice system, was set up to prevent reoffending through special programmes. However, a report into one of its flagship schemes, the Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme (ISSP), is expected to show that only 55 per cent of young offenders have completed the course, either because it is too demanding or because they committed another offence.

Home Office officials are understood to have suppressed publication of the report because the findings are politically sensitive at a time when the Government wants to appear tough on crime.

Rob Allen, a member of the Youth Justice Board, said he was not able to comment on the ISSP findings. He said a lot of work had been done to keep vulnerable offenders out of jail but admitted that parents of at-risk children should be given more support.

"There is a real danger at the moment that public expectations are being stoked up in dealing with young offenders," said Mr Allen, director of Rethinking Crime and Punishment, a prison reform think-tank.

Prison reformers said children in custody should be sent to units where there was a higher ratio of staff to inmates.

Richard Garside, director of the Crime and Society Foundation, said that children were the "collateral damage" of a government policy bent on fast-tracking young offenders through courts into prison.

"It takes a warped vision of justice to make the speed and efficiency with which disturbed and vulnerable children are prosecuted a measure of success," he said.

Additional reporting by Steve Bloomfield