We have come a long way. Only a few years ago, police forces were being encouraged to arrest as many troublesome children as possible, and they were celebrated when they did.
This week, however, some of the highest-ranking officers in the country have
had their heads turned by a report by the Howard League for Penal Reform which
calls for an entirely different approach – an end to the overnight detention of
under-18s in police cells. (PDF here)
Avon and Somerset Chief Constable Nick Gargan told more than 7,000 Twitter followers that the document was ‘powerful’. His counterpart in Cleveland, Jacqui Cheer – the Association of Chief Police Officers' lead on children and young people – went to Westminster to address MPs on its key findings. Other chief constables have written to the Howard League to respond. We sense a welcome change of direction.
The Howard League sent a Freedom of Information request to each police service in England and Wales, asking how many children aged 17 and under had been detained overnight during 2010 and 2011. Some of the largest police services were unable to supply figures. The total number recorded was still remarkably high. At least 45,311 children had been locked up overnight in 2010 and 40,716 in 2011. To put it another way, that's almost 800 children per week.
Apparently 27 per cent of the two-year total was of black and minority ethnic children, and 15 per cent of all the children were girls.
Spending a night in police
custody can be a worrying, frightening and intimidating experience for anyone,
never mind children. And some of the detainees in these cases are very young
Almost 400 of those children detained in 2010 and 2011 were aged 11 or younger. It is hard to believe that these detentions were unavoidable.
Very few children arrested will pose a risk of serious harm to the public. Most could be returned home immediately and asked to attend the police station the following morning if necessary.
The Howard League found that some children were being detained overnight
because their parent or guardian had refused to attend the police station or
were unable to pick up their child, sometimes because they had other children to
care for at home.
Some police services failed to make reasonable attempts to contact parents or guardians or ensure they were able to come to the police station to take their child home.
In 2011, a Criminal Justice Joint Inspection report, Who’s Looking Out For The Children?, highlighted the case of a 15-year-old boy who had been detained overnight in police custody. There was no evidence that his mother had been notified. Cases such as this illustrate that there is confusion about the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) code of practice and restrictions on interviewing children.
The inspection found that children arrested late at night were routinely put in cells to sleep until the morning, when staff would deal with them. This might comply with PACE legislation – during any investigation, a detainee must be allowed at least eight hours’ rest within a 24-hour period. But it is not in the best interests of the child.
Secure accommodation ought to be requested only for those children who pose a ‘risk to the public of significant harm’, but the review found that this condition was not always applied and staff found the relevant legislation unclear and confusing.
Only on rare occasions, if they are vulnerable or have no home to return to, should children be placed in the care of the local authority. They should not be detained because of delays in procedures, staffing issues or to fit the routine of the custody suite.
Children should be transferred to local authority care only if they have been charged with a serious violent or sexual offence and pose a continuing risk to the public. This is likely to be only a handful of cases.
Whatever the situation, a police cell is not an appropriate place for a child to be at night. Too often, children are being locked up overnight for police officers' convenience, rather than because they pose a risk or are likely to abscond.
Recent inspection reports only emphasise the point. A report on police custody suites in Staffordshire, published last year by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and HM Inspectorate of Prisons, provides as good an example as any.
One passage reads: “Custody sergeants at Stoke told us that juveniles were mainly located on E wing. However, on one day during the inspection a 13-year-old was taken to a cell on B wing because the custody sergeant who had booked him in was responsible for that wing and wished to continue to oversee the juvenile while he was in custody. The juvenile refused to go into the cell on B wing and was finally located in a holding room in front of the custody desk. When we spoke to him, he told us he was afraid of being left in a cell on his own and preferred to be in the holding room in view of staff."
The Inspectors went on: “We were concerned that the custody sergeants did not take this action in the first instance, given the detainee’s age and reluctance to be placed in a cell.”
Working with children in these circumstances can be a complex challenge, and
the Howard League has recommended that custody sergeants, police constables and
civilian detention officers should be given specific training.
But ultimately, it is parents, not police, who should be taking responsibility for their children.
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