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New report confirms problems of short custodial sentences for children

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Warehousing children in a prison filled with other troubled young people, often for a period of weeks, is counterproductive, inhumane and a pitiful waste of public money.

Andrew Neilson
22 March 2013

More than 1,300 boys and girls are locked up in this country and it is time to scrap short term prison sentences for children. That was the main finding of a crucial study published last week, although you can be forgiven for having missed it. The report, rather like the incarcerated children it focuses on, has been largely kept out of sight and out of mind.

Young people in the secure estate: needs and interventions
was commissioned by the Youth Justice Board five years ago. It finally appeared on the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) website last Friday, tucked away among myriad pages of research without even a press release to mark its arrival. Could this be because the report’s conclusions aren’t politically appetising, even though they make perfect sense?
 
The research team surveyed 1,245 children who were approaching the end of a custodial sentence. They also spoke to 42 staff working in five establishments – two prisons, two secure training centres and a secure children’s home.
 
The study found that, when a child is given a short sentence, there is often insufficient time for staff to build a strong relationship with them. There is also too little time to provide appropriate and effective interventions which will benefit the child – and their community – on their release from custody.
 
Significantly, one-third of prison staff interviewed for the research said that short sentences had little or no impact on a young person. They volunteered this opinion without being specifically asked, the report’s authors noted, about these sentences’ “value, effectiveness, efficacy or usefulness”.
 
This long-awaited survey adds weight, therefore, to previous research, including work by the Howard League for Penal Reform, which has shown that sentences of 12 months or less do little to change children’s behaviour or address their broader needs.  
 
Tackling the underlying reasons why children commit crime should be the priority rather than deciding how to punish them when they get into trouble. The simple fact is that children don’t pick their parents or what happens to them growing up. Many are not taught the difference between right and wrong until it’s too late – they might be victims of neglect, bad parenting, mental health issues or growing up in a home plagued by drug and alcohol abuse.
 
Effective community sentences that work with children to help them turn their backs on crime are the solution. Warehousing children in a prison filled with other troubled young people, often for a period of weeks, is counterproductive, inhumane and a pitiful waste of public money.
 
Rather than resorting to youth jails, we should promote more innovative approaches such as multisystemic therapy. Here, specialist staff work intensively with the child and their family, addressing the multiple causes for the child’s misbehaviour, such as school, negative peer influences and drug and alcohol misuse. A pilot scheme in Leeds had laudable results – four in five children who took part in the treatment have not been arrested since.
 
Although the number of children in prison has fallen recently, England and Wales still has one of the highest rates of child incarceration in Western Europe. Of all the interventions for children who offend, custody is the most damaging and least effective.
 
Three-quarters of children released from prison reoffend within a year, yet we persist in wasting £245million a year by locking up boys and girls. Custody should be reserved for the very few children who need some time in a secure environment.
The Howard League has fought for years for the closure of children’s prisons, and our opposition is well documented. Jails are dangerous, violent places, entirely unsuited to the needs of boys and girls as young as 10.
 
Perhaps the worst example is Ashfield prison, run by Serco and hidden away in leafy Pucklechurch, south Gloucestershire. The MoJ announced in January that this jail is to be re-rolled as an adult prison, and not before time.
 
Ashfield is the most violent prison in the country, with more than 1,000 assaults recorded there last year. That figure accounts for one in 15 assaults across the entire prison system, including adults.
 
Inspectors reporting in February 2012 said that physical restraint had been used at the prison almost 150 times a month – a nine-fold increase compared to their previous visit.
 
In one month alone, there were 480 strip-searches of children – an intrusive, degrading and traumatic practices that many other prisons have stopped. The inspectors found no evidence that they led to the finding of anything that wasn’t allowed in the jail. Figures released by parliament show that boys at Ashfield were kept in solitary confinement 377 times during 2011 – double the number recorded in 2008.
 
Last year the Howard League totted up the additional days each youth jail in England and Wales had imposed on the children they held. Ashfield’s shameful statistic – a total of more than five years’ imprisonment between January 2010 and April 2012 – was far higher than all the others.
 
The last child is to be moved out of Ashfield within weeks. Last week’s report is the latest in a series of studies which show why other prisons should face a similar fate.
 
It is time to move towards a system that no longer needlessly locks up the potential of our children.

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