Child jails must be built, say ministers

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Indy Politics
The Government has carried out a U-turn and given the go-ahead to build five "child jails" despite persistently attacking the policy while in opposition.

The decision was greeted with dismay by penal affair groups yesterday and marks the second pre-election pledge to be abandoned by Labour. The Government announced last month it plans to have two new privately run jails despite promising to end the privatisation of the Prison Service.

Labour sources, however, stressed that the decision to build new secure training centres for 200 persistent young offenders would be used to provide a more flexible treatment than envisaged by the Tories.

The announcement by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, to have five centres to lock up 12- to 14-year-olds comes as a surprise. Under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, persistent young offenders can be given sentences from six months to two years under new Secure Training Orders.

In a written parliamentary answer, Mr Straw said that in order to avoid wasting money, the Home Office was to honour a pre-election contract for a centre at Cookham Wood, Kent. He also announced that it was to go ahead with building a further four centres and introduce the Secure Training Order. In addition, there will be a review of all secure accommodation for young offenders. Sources suggest this could lead to the new secure centres being used to house 12- to 16-year-olds and providing a wider range of treatments.

He said yesterday: "If I had started with a clean sheet, I may have come up with a different idea, but politics is not like that and I didn't start with a clean sheet. I would have rightly been hugely criticised both on financial grounds and on our policy if I had stopped this out of cussedness because it was something we didn't invent."

He said he believed the institutions could work, adding: "We have identified a need for there to be more secure accommodation for young offenders in the under-15 age group."

But Paul Cavadino, chair of the Penal Affairs Consortium, attacked the measure and said: "It's terribly disappointing news. In opposition the Labour Party agreed with us that the secure training order was a retrograde proposal.

"Children who have to be detained should be held in local authority secure units which are part of the child care system, not in child jails."

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, added: "All the evidence shows that the reconviction rates for children sent to these institutions will be extraordinarily high and the regime is likely to confirm rather than deter criminal behaviour. Separation from families, no matter how inadequate they may be, is likely to cause to psychological damage."

The four centres, which have yet to obtain planning permission, are intended for Gringley in Nottinghamshire, Onley, Warwickshire,Medomsley, County Durham, and an unnamed site in the South West.

Labour had previously argued that it prefers to build more local authority secure places, rather than having privately run child jails that are expensive to operate.