Fewer children to be jailed after MPs criticise prisons

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The number of children in jail is to be cut by 10 per cent after criticism over the incarceration of young offenders, the Government's Youth Justice Board said yesterday. Nearly 30 children aged between 10 and 17 have died in custody since 1990.

The number of children in jail is to be cut by 10 per cent after criticism over the incarceration of young offenders, the Government's Youth Justice Board said yesterday. Nearly 30 children aged between 10 and 17 have died in custody since 1990.

A damning report by MPs said the £283m annual bill for jailing young people is largely wasted, with most committing more crimes after release.

The board plans to reduce the number of jailed children in that age range from 2,700 to 2,420 by March 2007, "through additional and better-delivered alternatives to custody". These will include greater use of electronic tagging, with youths offered education and therapy as an alternative to custody.

The board also believes the Safer Schools project, where police officers work in schools to tackle bullying and reduce truancy and law-breaking, will cut the numbers in jail. Professor Rod Morgan, the board's chairman, said: "We attach a great deal of weight to early-prevention programmes." The board also plans expansion of units in adult women's jails to house 17-year-old girls.

Concern about the detention of children is mounting, with the Government facing demands for a public inquiry into the treatment of young offenders. In August Adam Rickwood, 14, was found hanging at the Hassockfield secure training centre in Co Durham. He was the youngest person to die in custody. A total of 27 children have died in prison since 1990.

Last month the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee found 80 per cent of jailed teenagers were reconvicted within two years. It also warned they faced problems finding jobs, housing or education when they were released.

Professor Morgan told the board's annual convention: "It is my priority to ensure young people in custody are safe from harm, and the causes of their offending are effectively addressed. While I believe the majority of young offenders can be dealt with more constructively in the community, we have a responsibility to provide appropriate levels of care for the minority who need to be held in secure accommodation."

David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "Reliance on non-custodial sentences to reduce prison places and meet targets does not make sense, because in many cases reconviction rates for non-custodial sentences are worse than those for custodial sentences. Today's youth crime is tomorrow's serious crime and it is time the Government got a grip."

The shadow prisons minister Cheryl Gillan said: "It is no surprise youth and young adult crime is out of control. The Labour government has failed to provide a prison environment capable of ensuring reasonable rehabilitation and reduced reoffending amongst young offenders. They require intensive and targeted interventions to prevent them getting on an escalator to a life of crime."

* Criminals who offend while under the influence of drugs or alcohol should be given longer sentences, the Home Affairs Select Committee will recommend today. MPs want to stop thempleading alcohol and drug abuse in mitigation.

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