The chair of the Youth Justice Board has admitted its plans to reduce the number of young people in custody are “going backwards” after it revealed spare capacity in the secure estate for juveniles had neared an all-time low.
Professor Rod Morgan (pictured) said the “risk of things going wrong” had increased because 97 per cent of capacity was being used.
The Howard League for Penal Reform also claimed this week that more than 3,000 children were in custody in England and Wales.
To counter the problem, the YJB recommended last week that young offender institutions should consider compulsory cell-sharing and releasing more young offenders early from their sentences.
Chris Stanley, head of youth crime at crime-reduction charity Nacro, said it had “grave concerns” about compulsory cell-sharing.
The inquiry into the murder of young offender Zahid Mubarek by his cellmate Robert Stewart said the elimination of enforced cell-sharing should be a “high priority” for the government.
Morgan said YOIs used “careful” assessments to determine the suitability of inmates to share cells.
The number of young people in custody peaked at 3,175 in October 2002. The population has gone up and down since then but has risen significantly again in recent months, with official figures showing it hit more than 2,900 at the end of June.
Morgan said this increase was “more serious” than that in 2002, which was attributed to tougher sentences demanded by the government. He also said he could not “entirely explain” why the population was growing at such a pace now.
John Fassenfelt, chair of the Magistrates’ Association’s youth courts committee, said magistrates’ distrust of community sentences was a major issue. The association is planning a series of conferences early next year for magistrates and the YJB to address this.
Robbery offences accounted for one fifth of 15- to 17-year-olds in prison in June this year, up 15 per cent in a year.
Fassenfelt said guidance aimed at reducing custodial sentences for robbery offences, published last month by the Sentencing Guidelines Council, was “not biting in yet”.
YJB proposals to reduce pressure on secure estate
Youth Justice Board
The Howard League for Penal Reform