Leading article: Youth, crime and injustice

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The Independent Online

Barnardo's calls it a "tragedy"; we would call it a national disgrace.

That Britain locks up an average of 400 12- to 14-year-olds at any one time, far more than any other country in Europe, is bad enough. What makes it still more shameful is that, on Barnardo's calculations, more than a third of those given custodial sentences should never have been put under lock and key under the Government's own guidelines.

As the law states, quite clearly, children under the age of 14 should not be incarcerated unless they have committed a grave offence such as murder, or are deemed a persistent offender who cannot be trusted not to commit further crimes. And yet more than a fifth of those surveyed by the children's charity were found to have been locked up for breaching an anti-social behaviour order (Asbo) or similar punishment.

There is nothing new to this scandal. In 2007 the then head of the Youth Justice Board, Rod Morgan, quit, declaring that young offender institutions were being swamped as the number of children in custody reached record heights. Yet here we are, two and a half years later, locking up yet more vulnerable and damaged children, despite all the evidence that custody does little more than criminalise them further. More than 70 per cent reoffend within a year of their release.

As the report by Barnardo's argues, it is not that the legal system as such is determined on severe punishment for guilty children, it is that the sentencing guidelines are inconsistent and imprecise. Custodial sentences for children breaching previous Asbos, in particular, seem particularly perverse. Judges feel they have no choice but to up the scale of punishment when the initial judicial order is flouted, yet in ordering the child to be locked up there is an obvious contradiction with the law's intention only to incarcerate children for "grave" offences.

Barnardo's is calling for stricter, clearer rules to prevent the current inconsistency between the law and its implementation. We would go much further and say that the whole system of custodial sentencing for children as young as 12 is inhumane and, on all the evidence, counter-productive.

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