A child's place is not in a cell: Proposals to lock up children as young as 12 are a knee-jerk reaction to emotive claptrap, says Frances Crook

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The Independent Online
A spate of recent episodes involving teenagers gives the impression that we face an unprecedented outbreak of juvenile crime which the police say they have no power to stem. Public concern over events such as joy-riding by children, some as young as 10, who are too young to be detained and who sometimes re-offend as soon as they have been cautioned, have been reflected in the Home Secretary mooting plans to reinvent the approved school.

He has reportedly been promised some pounds 75m by the Treasury and secured parliamentary time to bring back laws that would allow children as young as 12 to be confined in penal establishments. A White Paper, purely a formality, is expected next month.

Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, has allies in a few chief constables and some MPs on the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, which is inquiring into juvenile crime. They are creating a public moral panic about a few very young persistent offenders.

This is all emotional hype. No one has any idea how many 12- to 14-year-olds are persistently committing offences. The Home Office asked police forces how many children had been arrested (note, arrested, not convicted) for more than 10 offences in a three-month period and were told it was 106. Some police forces did not reply. It appears none the less that it is not a problem involving large numbers and not something the police consider so serious at a local level as to warrant more detailed research.

We need more facts and less emotive claptrap before we start locking up children. No one denies that a response to burglary or the theft of performance cars is needed. But we must make sure that the response is based on real information, that it is designed to protect the community and to stop these youngsters from repeating their offences. Responses should be preventive and not merely punitive. They should also represent good value for taxpayers' money.

The irony is that this idea is a complete reversal of recent government policies towards children in trouble with the law. Over the past decade there has been a steady decline in the use of custody for teenagers aged under 17. At the same time, the number of crimes known to have been committed by this age group has declined dramatically. The number of known offenders aged 10 to 13 has dropped by 43 per cent. In 1985 there were 51,000 children known to have committed criminal offences, but by 1991 this had dropped to 29,000. The drop is 31 per cent overall in the age- range 10 to 17 (males), from a peak of 219,000 known offenders to 149,000 in 1991.

This represents a success for the Government. Demographic changes account for some of this: there are now fewer 14- to 17-year- olds. But the number of 10- to 14- year-olds has remained constant.

The Howard League believes that the drop in crime is linked to the decline in the use of prison. Locking children up brutalises them and in the end adds to the crime problem. Young Offender Institutions like Feltham or Glen Parva have extremely high failure rates: 80 per cent of the boys who left custody in 1985 were reconvicted of a criminal offence within two years. The rate was the same for borstals and approved schools.

As the Association of Chief Police Officers said last week that if you force a youngster into a prison with a regimented structure you set them the new challenge of beating the system. Young people can do this by spending their time learning how to commit other crimes; they can learn to bully other boys or, if they are really desperate, they can mutilate themselves or attempt suicide.

Three 15-year-old boys have committed suicide in prison in the last three years. Three children were made so desperate and terrified that they hanged themselves from their prison bars. In 1991 there were 60 recorded incidents of attempted suicide or self-mutilation by boys and girls aged 16 or under in prisons around the country. There have also been appalling scandals of young people being mistreated in local authority care. Secure accommodation and prisons failed these youngsters, and they provide no answer to the current moral panic about persistent offenders.

If we do not lock them up, though, what should we do with them? The Home Secretary is planning to spend around pounds 200,000 for each custodial place and a further pounds 2,000 per week to look after each child. If the Treasury can find so much to pay private companies to build and run penal establishments for children, surely it could be used to fund schemes tailored to each child.

All sorts of exciting and effective schemes have grown up over the past decade, run by voluntary agencies like National Children's Home and the Rainer Foundation. They look after young people with multiple problems who are either facing criminal charges and are given bail, or who have been convicted of an offence. In Hampshire, or Kirklees, for instance, there are remand fostering schemes enabling a teenager to stay with a family who assume responsibility for them and are paid a sum to cover expenses.

The lessons of the past decade are clear. Locking up children virtually ensures that they re-offend. It does not matter what you use to lock them up; it all fails. Only very, very few young people need secure accommodation and that should be of the highest standard with committed, trained and well- paid staff. Even so-called persistent offenders can be supervised in this way. Locking them up in prisons, by that name or any other name, may mean that they never come out. Will the Home Secretary take responsibility for the first 12-year-old who hangs himself in one of his new lock-ups?

The author is director of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

(Photograph omitted)