Plan for child prisons to be scrapped

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Jails for persistent child offenders - one of the Conservatives' most controversial law and order policies - look set to be axed by the Labour government.

In a second move Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, will abandon Conservative proposals to end the automatic right to trial by jury for certain offences and halt the jailing of almost all fine and television licence defaulters.

The announcement to have five new Secure Training Centres for 200 young offenders aged 12 to 14, was criticised by penal reform groups.

Michael Howard, the then Home Secretary, made them a key component of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act to help tackle juvenile crime. Persistent young offenders were to be given sentences from six months to two years under new Secure Training Orders.

But since 1994, the Home Office has become bogged down with planning disputes as local residents and councils opposed the "child jails". Just before the general election the first centre, at Cookham Wood in Kent, was granted panning approval, but the other four jails are still no nearer being set up.

It is understood that the Government is carrying out a review of the proposals for child jails and is set to abandon the scheme. The existing contract at Cookham Wood, which has accommodation for 40 people, will be honoured, but the centre will probably be used to house juveniles on remand awaiting trial.

Labour has already made clear that it prefers to build more local authority secure places, rather than having privately run child jails that are expensive to run. The other centres were intended for Gringley in Nottinghamshire, Onley, Warwickshire, Medomsley, County Durham, and Kidlington near Oxford.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "We would welcome the abandonment of Secure Training Centres - they went ahead against all professional opinion. They will be extremely expensive to run and will do nothing to reduce crime."

In a second attack on Tory policy the Home Office will ditch plans by Michael Howard to end the automatic right to elect jury trial in a range of cases, including assault, many indecency charges, theft and burglary.

However, it is understood that a raft of other measures for swifter justice drawn up by the Home Office civil servants are likely to be accepted by the new government. These include dealing with offenders aged 17 in adult rather than youth courts; removing the right of the Crown Prosecution Service to discontinue cases on public interest grounds and allowing stipendiary magistrates to sit alone in youth courts.

Mr Straw, confronted with a prison population of 60,000-plus and rising, is also examining a number of ways to reduce the time inmates spent in jail on remand awaiting trial and cutting the number of fine defaulters who were sent to prison. He hopes these changes will free 6,000 cells.

Mr Straw's first visit to a jail, Winchester in Hampshire, as Home Secretary, was overshadowed yesterday by news that a 21-year-old man serving a three-month sentence for possession of drugs, theft and affray, was found dead in his cell, having apparently committed suicide.