With 14 different community sentences in existence in England and
Wales alone, and a government that claims to be committed to
reducing the numbers of children held in custody, it is a mystery
why the UK remains so keen on detention as a response to youth
Despite the availability of alternative options, over 7,500
children are sentenced to custody in England and Wales each year.
Between 1992 and 2001 the number of child incarcerations rose by 90
per cent, with the highest increase seen among the youngest
offenders – under-15s in detention rose by 800 per cent. Children
in the UK are nearly four times more likely to be imprisoned than
in France, and 100 times more likely than in Finland.
Yet this ballooning population of child prisoners (which has been
condemned by the United Nations Committee for the Rights of the
Child) cannot be explained by a corresponding rise in youth crime.
In fact, recorded youth offending fell by around 20 per cent during
Nor is it supported by low re-offending rates. According to
rehabilitation charity Nacro, 84 per cent of young offenders held
in young offenders institutions re-offend after release. This
compares with 59 per cent of the prison population as a whole and
is far higher than the recidivism rate for young offenders
receiving non-custodial options.
Reasons for this failure were suggested by Oxford University and PA
Consulting in a recent comparison of the custodial detention
training order and the community-based intensive supervision and
surveillance programme. Young offenders serving a detention order
averaged only 12.7 hours of “purposeful activity” a week compared
with 25.8 hours for young offenders on ISSPs.
Non-custodial sentences are also more financially economical as a
six-month ISSP costs £6,000 compared with £21,000 for the
same period in a YOI.
However, the most pertinent argument against youth custody is the
tragic effect it can have on vulnerable young children.
Half of those held in YOIs are known to social services and many
have experienced sexual or physical abuse. For these vulnerable
young people detention can break important ties with their families
– around a quarter never receive a visit – and expose them to an
environment where, according to Anne Owers, the prisons chief
inspector, bullying is rife.
The consequences of such exposure can be devastating, as
illustrated by the 12 suicides in YOIs between 1998 and 2002 and
1,111 reported incidents of self-harm.
Tragedies such as these led the Howard League for Penal Reform to
seek and, last year, win a landmark ruling that children held in
young offenders institutions should receive the full protection of
the Children Act 1989.
However, while the High Court ruled that the act should apply to
children in custody, it did not impose any obligation on the prison
service to ensure the act’s protection was put in place. This
responsibility remained with social services departments, creating
the legal anomaly whereby social services had a statutory duty to
safeguard the welfare of children in prison, but the prison service
This anomaly remains. Frances Crook, the Howard League’s director,
says:”The government has, so far, refused to amend the act so we
are still taking on cases where it seems that last year’s judgement
has not been taken seriously.”
An obvious example of this is the continuing use of solitary
confinement for young people, a practice that if carried out by a
parent would be considered child abuse, says Crook.
Meanwhile, the use of non-custodial options appears to be achieving
increasing success. The Youth Justice Board states that the rate of
re-offending for young people on community punishments is 22.5 per
cent lower than the predicted rate.
Interventions such as the ISSP, community rehabilitation orders,
reparation orders, curfews, and drug treatment and testing orders
appear finally to be making some inroads into the traditionally
high recidivism rate of young offenders.
This has been recognised in the youth justice annex to the recent
children’s green paper Every Child Matters which proposes that
community supervision and surveillance should become the “main
response to repeat and serious offending”.
Under the new proposals nine of the current juvenile non-custodial
sentences will be merged into a broader action plan order that will
offer a “comprehensive menu” of interventions such as fines,
reparation, personal support, drug and alcohol awareness, anger
management, mentoring, victim-offender mediation, family group
conferences, fostering, hostel placements and mental health
In addition, the ISSP will become the sentence of choice for the
most persistent and serious offenders. These young people will
undergo intensive surveillance (most will wear electronic tags and
be subject to curfews) and take part in an intensive programme
focusing on five core areas: at least 15 hours of education and
training per week; family support; interpersonal skills;
challenging offending and restorative justice.
Bob Baird, manager of the Leeds ISSP who oversees around 130
programmes each year, believes the combination of intensive support
and surveillance can have a dramatic effect on the crime rate of
persistent juvenile offenders.
“I’m totally confident that there will have been a significant
reduction in offending by the target group. This is a particularly
prolific group of offenders so it speaks for itself that anything
that makes them less prolific or commit less serious offences is
bound to make a considerable impact.”
A key element of the ISSP and several other community sentences is
the use of restorative justice, a technique that seeks to encourage
young offenders to accept responsibility for their actions and
attempt to make amends with their victims.
The Scottish youth justice system, in particular, has promoted the
use of restorative justice with a pioneering scheme recently set up
in Glasgow under the leadership of Inspector Alan Speirs of
The service targets young people under 16 who have offended between
one and five times. It has three main components: restorative
cautioning, restorative conferencing, and the restorative justice
The restorative caution is conducted by trained police officers and
focuses on the young person and the effects of their actions.
Speirs said this replaces the old superintendent’s warning where
“if you reduced the young person to tears that was seen as a
Restorative conferencing mediates between the young offenders and
their victims, often bringing them face-to-face, so that the
offender can appreciate the effect of their actions and try to help
repair the damage caused.
The restorative justice programme is reserved for the most serious
offenders and consists of a four-week programme of modules
delivered by a number of agencies including the council’s youth and
building services, the police, fire brigade, and health service.
“It’s about encouraging them to understand the consequences of
their actions and it also means that victims can be part of the
process if they want,” stresses Speirs.
The success of community sentences only goes to highlight the
inadequacy of custody as an approach to youth crime. Nevertheless
the YJB’s recent announcement that the number of juvenile boys in
custody has fallen by 13 per cent since October 2002, signals that
the tide is slowly turning.