The Big Question: Are we putting too many young offenders behind bars?

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The Independent Online

Why is this issue in the news?

The pressures on the prison system have been well documented over the past few weeks and have even prompted an emergency package of measures from John Reid, the Home Secretary.

A similar crisis has been building below the political radar, with steady increases in the numbers of under-18s being locked up. The Youth Justice Board (YJB), which is responsible for the supervision of young offenders, has finally decided to go public on the imminent "meltdown" it faces.

It has been driven to the dramatic step by two factors. First, the fact that the number of children behind bars has jumped to 3,329, one of the highest totals on record. Second, more than 30 inmates went on the rampage this month at Stoke Heath young offender institution (YOI) in Shropshire. The riot demonstrated the strains on the system.

Rod Morgan, chairman of the YJB, who has influential supporters in the Chief Inspector of Prisons and the Children's Commissioner, says it has fewer than 30 spare places and that they could be filled within days.

Two years ago, Jaap Doek, chairman of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, denounced Britain's record on young offenders saying: "The UK still locks up more children than most other industrialised countries. Why is this tolerated?" Since then the situation has deteriorated alarmingly.

Why are numbers increasing?

No one knows for certain, and the rises have surprised the JYB, which in 2004 set itself the target of reducing the numbers in custody to 2,400 by 2007. Instead the trend has been remorselessly upwards. Professor Morgan puts the situation down to a worrying "mood music" in courts, which appear ever more reluctant to opt for non-custodial sentences for the more difficult children.

An obvious explanation is tough rhetoric from politicians, vowing to crack down on "young thugs", a trend criminologists trace back to the murder in 1993 of Liverpool toddler James Bulger by two 10-year-old boys. It is echoed by continual reports in much of the media about the ineffectiveness of community punishments.

Another factor is undoubtedly the rapid increase in numbers of Antisocial Behaviour Orders handed out to children. There are many grounds on which they can be breached, which is a criminal offence and can result in youngsters being embroiled in a judicial process not designed for them.

How does the system work?

Any English or Welsh child who is 10 or over can become caught up in the youth justice system. It is one of the youngest ages of criminal responsibility in the western world, although it is even lower in Scotland, where eight-year-olds can be prosecuted.

Youngsters caught breaking the law or acting in an antisocial way are initially dealt with by Youth Offending Teams which bring together police, probation officers and the social services. If they continue offending, they are referred to a Youth Court or, in the most serious cases, Crown Court. The vast majority who are found guilty are given community sentences, such as the community punishment order, under which 16- and 17-year-olds undertake such tasks as carpentry and working with the elderly for up to 240 hours.

Where are children locked up?

More than 80 per cent of those who are put behind bars are sent to YOIs, which are run by the prison service. There are 19 across the country, 14 for boys and five for girls, holding a total of 2,820 youngsters. Several hundred are in four secure training centres in Bucks, Kent, Warwickshire and Co. Durham. These are privately run purpose-built units intended at rehabilitating highly vulnerable youngsters. More than 200 are held in secure children's homes run by local authorities generally used for offenders aged 12 to 14 and girls up to the age of 16.

What happens if they become full?

Places will be found for them, as the prison service has a statutory duty to accommodate them. But it is bound to mean more children being bussed around the country, making it hard for them to maintain contact with their families. Youngsters on remand to appear in court in London are already being held in Shropshire and Bristol, while young offenders from the capital are being held in Northumberland.

Pressures on the system could increase the risk of suicide and self-harm among the most vulnerable children in custody, make it more difficult to run vocational and rehabilitation courses and inevitably result in more youngsters being forced to share cells.

There would also be a knock-on effect on adult inmates who could have to be housed in police cells or prison ships if emergency places have to be found for under-18s.

Do the alternatives to custody work?

It is obvious that early intervention to prevent youngsters getting into trouble in the first place is the ideal way of tackling youth crime and could, the Audit Commission has estimated, save public services £80m a year.

Many such schemes - including work with children in the most deprived neighbourhoods and tackling drug problems among teenagers - already exist and the YJB is committed to developing more.

Meanwhile, it is making yet another attempt to persuade sentencers to opt for community sentences. But the evidence on their effectiveness is mixed, with a damning report into the flagship Intensive Surveillance and Supervision Programme, under which the most persistent young offenders are electronically tagged, discovering that 90 per cent reoffended within two years.

The YJB counters that the frequency and severity of the crimes they committed have been reduced. It says: "Dysfunctional, chaotic lives cannot be turned around without intensive, long-term help." That is hard to provide in the environment of a cell.

Perhaps the real question is: does custody work? The YJB spends the lion's share of its budget locking up children - more than £300 million - and yet 80 per cent of young people who go through the system return to crime.

The fear is that the proportion can only rise further if yet more are crammed into institutions already at bursting point.

Are we locking up too many children?

Yes...

* Numbers in custody are at near-record levels, despite overall falls in youth crime

* Unrest, tension between staff and youngsters, and increased levels of suicide and self-harm are likely if the youth prison numbers grow

* Most of the Youth Justice Board budget goes on providing custody rather than community sentences

No...

* Public concern, reflected by politicians, about young criminals is growing; they want them taken off the streets

* Custody is kept for a small minority of youngsters - those who are repeat offenders or commit serious violent crimes

* Evidence on the success of community sentences is mixed - and they carry the risk of offenders committing fresh crimes