Monday, 12 August 2013

Jail Break: Time to Get Juveniles Out of Prison Service Custody

At the end of June, there were 1,237 children under 18 in custodial establishments in England and Wales, representing a 60% fall over five years and a national total somewhat lower than the number of pupils at Eton College. Two thirds are held in Young Offender Institutions run by the prison service, where recent inspections have found often horrifying levels of violence, inadequate regimes and dismal outcomes. With the government due to set out their plans for the juvenile secure estate, the historically low numbers in custody provide a once in a generation opportunity to end the incarceration of juveniles in prison department establishments.

There are of course juveniles whose liberty needs to be restricted. About one in five of the current population are serving long sentences for grave crimes and many of these will transfer to other establishments at 18. A further fifth are on remand awaiting trial but legislative restrictions and the transfer of costs to local government could see these numbers fall further through the development of better alternatives.

But what of the three fifths of juveniles in custody who are serving a Detention and Training Order (DTO), a fixed term sentence of between four months and two years  served half in custody and half in the community? Many of these are young men – there are only about 50 girls under 18 in custody- whose prospects of giving up crime are hardly helped by a spell behind bars. In prison establishments in particular, unsuitable physical conditions, inappropriate rules and procedures and insufficient staff can combine to do more harm than good.

Some at least of these young people could be supervised on conventional alternative sentences but many -perhaps the majority -will have struggled to comply with the terms of previous orders. For them perhaps a short period in custody is unavoidable- but not for the two months that the DTO requires as a minimum. The period in custody should be measured in days and used  for community based agencies to put together a comprehensive plan of action to deal effectively with the young person’s needs without locking them up. Mostly this will involve a package of support for them (and their families) to get them learning and earning, off drugs and out of gangs.   Sometimes it may involve a specialist residential placement, an option currently permitted under the provisions of the DTO but never in fact applied.

Reshaping the DTO so that very short detention is followed by longer training in the community could perhaps halve the number of custodial places currently required. It would better meet the requirement of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that “the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child   shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time”.

 
 

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