Massive increase in young behind bars

Magistrates and judges have reacted to the juvenile crime scare by increasing dramatically the number of jail sentences handed out to young offenders.

A national debate on young offenders opened at the beginning of February, after the murder of two-year-old James Bulger in Liverpool, with both Labour and Conservative politicians calling for tougher treatment of juveniles. Courts have since increased by 43 per cent the number of those under 18 in prison.

Pressure on the jails in the north of England is so great that the Home Office has had to bus juvenile criminals hundreds of miles from their homes to the notorious Feltham Young Offender Institution in West London - where four inmates have committed suicide in the past two years.

The Home Office said the number of convicted juveniles jailed had risen from 411 to 588 between the beginning of February and the beginning of March, but a spokesman was unable to supply figures for the number of juveniles remanded in custody in the same period.

In the next few weeks, the number of young offender places in a juvenile unit at Deerbolt, Co Durham, will double and new cells will open in Brinsford jail, near Bristol. The Home Office hopes this will help ease the crisis.

Officially, the Home Office puts some of the increase down to seasonal trends and refuses to comment on how the debate on crime has affected prison numbers. But privately senior officials are disappointed that a 'panic in the courts' was apparently ruining the chance for Britain to lose its reputation for imprisoning a higher percentage of its population than any other western Europe country.

The breakthrough seemed to have been achieved when figures showed that between September 1992 and the New Year the prison population fell from 46,120 to 41,480 - an 11 per cent drop in defiance of all previous trends.

The introduction on 1 October of the Criminal Justice Act, which forced courts to justify the use of custody and effectively prevented judges taking previous convictions into account, was held to be largely responsible.

'The Act was working well, everything was fine,' said one official last week. 'But I think the fuss about crime is turning all that around.' Paul Cavadino, of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, said: 'It is no coincidence that hysteria in the media had produced a huge increase in the number of young prisoners.

'It is foolish for the courts to behave in this way. Young offenders who have been in jail are more likely to re-offend on release.'

Most unusally, the Home Office was unable to give the total number of people in prison at the end of last week and the week before. But informed sources said the number had gone back over 42,000 and was rapidly heading towards 43,000.

Harry Brett, general secretary of the Prison Governors Association, said that the prison population was bouncing around like a yo-yo and it was all but impossible for jails to plan ahead.