The landmark legal ruling that the Children Act 1989 applies to
children under 18 held in young offenders institutions has to be
welcomed because it is not only an enlightened move but also common
sense. We know children held in custodial settings are vulnerable
to heavy-handed treatment and feelings of isolation. We have had
many reports from successive chief inspectors of prisons revealing
poor conditions for young offenders, and statistics show a young
prisoner commits suicide every 90 days.
But will this judgement in favour of the Howard League for Penal
Reform ensure children are given the protection they deserve? The
High Court ruled that local authorities have a statutory duty to
ensure the provisions of the Children Act are upheld in YOIs. But
YOIs are run by the prison service under the jurisdiction of the
Home Office, and the judge held that the act does not impose any
responsibilities on them.
So how is this going to work? Local authorities can liaise closely
with the prison service to give social workers access to children
in custody, but they will have no power to enact change. This
sounds like a recipe for confusion and inaction, which the
government must move to resolve or the Howard League’s fine efforts
will have been in vain.