Suicide fears as number of child inmates rises

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The Independent Online

The number of children held in prisons and detention centres has increased by 11 per cent in the past year as magistrates have embraced new powers to sentence young offenders to custody.

The number of children held in prisons and detention centres has increased by 11 per cent in the past year as magistrates have embraced new powers to sentence young offenders to custody.

The Government's Youth Justice Board has confirmed that 2,929 young people, aged between 12 and 17, were in custody at the end of July, an increase of 290 on last year.

Campaigners attacked the magistracy yesterday for its hard line, and warned the trend would lead to more crime and young people killing or harming themselves in prison.

The Prison Service is investigating the death last week of 17-year-old Kevin Henson, who was found hanging from torn bed sheets in his cell in Feltham young offenders' institution, west London.

Many young offenders, who are between 12 and 17, are being held under the Government's new Detention and Training Orders (DTO), which require half the sentence to be a community punishment and half to be spent in custody.

In the three months after their introduction in April, 1,475 DTOs were made, 1,383 against boys and 92 against girls. Thus, 1,234 boys and 61 girls were put in prison cells. A further 109 boys went to secure training centres, and 40 boys and 31 girls were sent to local authority secure units.

Frances Crook, of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said no more than 10 per cent of those being held needed to be in custody.

Harry Fletcher, of the National Association of Probation Officers, said that magistrates were being influenced by the rhetoric of politicians. "Courts are more likely to jail people than give community sentences because the sentencing culture is harsher."

He said: "Certain parts of the country like the North-east and the North-west are far more likely to put people away than other parts of the country. The secure training centres in Kent and the Midlands are full of kids from the North-east."

Raymond Curry, the chairman of the magistrates' bench in Leeds, said: "None of us like to put them in custody to any extent. It's a last resort, with young people in particular." But he accepted that the DTOs were attractive to magistrates because they ensured that the offender was not just locked up. Mr Curry said: "The DTO can be as little as a four-month sentence, half of which is spent in custody to bring the young person to heel."

He said that in former years the lack of a training element in the sentence had made magistrates more reluctant to give a custodial sentence. But he also believed the rise in youngsters in custody could also be linked to a discernible increase in serious crimes by young offenders in the past year.

The Youth Justice Board said that the rise in incarceration was partly due to the speeding up of the court system in the past year, with the average time from arrest to sentencing down to 92 days, from 142 days in 1996.

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