Councils are being asked to audit cases where children under 18 have been jailed amid concerns over wide local variations in custodial sentencing across England and Wales.
The Prison Reform Trust is writing to council leaders, children’s directors and youth offending team managers in areas with high rates to urge them to bring numbers down.
The latest figures show that more than one-third – 58 of the 157 – of youth offending team areas had jailed at least 10% of children convicted of crimes between 2001 and 2007, according to the Youth Justice Board.
Children are more likely to receive custodial sentences if they live in London – which had the highest regional rate at 11%, compared with the North East, where just 6% of convicted children were jailed.
Of the YOT areas, Merthyr Tydfil in Wales had the highest rate, sentencing 23% of under-18s to jail between 2006-7, and an average of 25% since 2001.
At the lowest end just 3% children were sentenced to custody in 2006-7 in Pembrokeshire, Richmond, Solihull, Somerset, South Gloucestershire and South Tyneside.
Cindy Barnett, chair of the Magistrates’ Association, said the reasons behind the variations in sentencing were “complex” but said some areas could lack sufficient resources for alternatives to custody.
Penelope Gibbs, director of the PRT’s five-year strategy to reduce child imprisonment, said she hoped to encourage each area to analyse their custodial rate, starting with an audit focusing on where alternatives to custody could have been used.
The move will intensify scrutiny of local authorities’ role in tackling youth crime.
The government is rumoured to be considering transferring responsibility for the youth detention budget from the YJB to councils to incentivise authorities to invest in preventive measures.
YJB chair Frances Done told the justice select committee last week that it was intending to work with urban areas, particularly London, where custody rates were highest, to support “more coherent commissioning” of services for young people.
Also giving evidence, John Coughlan, former president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, rejected the idea that councils lacked incentives to drive down custody.