Children do not belong in cells: Twelve-year-old offenders need help, not prison, argues Frances Crook

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The Independent Online
AFTER a rough ride in the Commons, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill tomorrow begins its passage through the House of Lords. An early defeat on a key element of the Bill looks possible: opposition has been mounting to the first clauses dealing with government plans to bring in secure training centres: prisons for children aged 12, 13 and 14. An amendment to delete the clause is being tabled by a leading Conservative peeress and a bishop.

The legislation provides for five new centres, each to hold 40 children for up to a year. They could spend a second year under supervision in the community. Courts will be able to use the sentence on a child if he (or less likely, she) has committed three offences. At the moment the lowest age at which a child can go to prison, or to a young offenders' institution, is 15.

The centres will come under the auspices of the Prison Service, although they will be built and run by commercial companies. The recommended daily routine contained in a Home Office document given to MPs describes a spartan life. Educational provision conspicuously fails to mention the national curriculum and there is to be little in the way of family contact. As one Conservative MP put it: 'There are a small number of children who appear to be beyond redemption, and it is possibly true that they may not be rehabilitated while locked up.'

The centres will be located on existing prison land. Sites announced so far include two old detention centres in South Yorkshire and County Durham which were closed when the short, sharp shock, introduced by the former Home Secretary William Whitelaw in 1980, was discredited. Another will be next to Campsfield House, near Oxford, the immigration detention centre. All the sites are difficult to reach by public transport.

When children are imprisoned a long way from their families it can have dramatic effects on their behaviour. Jeffrey Horler was sent 200 miles to Feltham Young Offenders' Institution in Middlesex and his mother found it too difficult and expensive to undertake the journey with her other small children. Jeffrey was 15 years old when he hanged himself from his prison bars.

Bullying has become a recognised feature in all penal institutions and there is no reason to presume that the secure training centres will be any different. I visited the juvenile wing of a young offenders' institution last month and saw boys with black eyes and broken hands. Violent bullying has been one of the causes of suicides among teenagers in prisons.

Violence can also come from staff and through sanctioned forms of control and punishment. Children locked up against their will are difficult to deal with, and there have been a series of scandals across the range of institutions, from 'pin-down' in Staffordshire to allegations of staff violence in Aycliffe. There is an inevitability about violence inside these places.

Child jails also end up generating more crime, partly because of the violence, and partly because these institutions simply fail to deal with the reasons the youngsters get into trouble in the first place. All the evidence from past regimes - borstals, approved schools, detention centres etc - points to reconviction rates approaching 85 per cent. A prototype of the sort of secure training centre proposed in the Criminal Justice Bill has existed for some years in Northern Ireland and has a failure rate of 90 per cent. So, if we want to guarantee that children continue to commit offences we should build jails and lock them up.

By contrast, studies involving broadly similar groups of children have shown that fewer than half of the youngsters held in the community were reconvicted within two years.

The Home Secretary has argued that his new child jails will deal with the persistent offender. Yet his own research, commissioned from the Policy Studies Institute, does not support this. Persistent young offenders represent a small group and most of them go through a phase which they grow out of alone. Violent crime is rare, with the majority of crime comprising car crime, burglaries and criminal damage.

There are already schemes and projects around the country that deal effectively with even the most persistent young offender. Yet the funding for these is being cut, with much diverted into the building of the pounds 100m jails for children.

What we need are more specialist services for the younger age group. A Howard League project dealing with young teenagers scoured the country for a drug rehabilitation centre last month for one of our clients. We could find nothing suitable, so he had to remain in a prison.

In the past half century, we have moved towards a child-centred way of responding to children in trouble, shifting responsibility towards the Department of Health and local social services. In 1990 the then Home Secretary, David Waddington, announced that no longer would children aged 14 be eligible for prison, and he gave a firm commitment to end the use of prison custody for 15- and 16-year-olds on remand. He argued that it was not appropriate for people of this age. If Clause One survives, we could be forcing children to endure a tougher prison sentence than an adult would serve for similar offences.

Frances Crook is Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

Beatrix Campbell is away.