Thousands of children are being unnecessarily locked up on remand every year due to serious failings in the youth justice system, according to a report published today by the Prison Reform Trust.
The number of people aged under 18 remanded into custody has risen by 41% over the past seven years, however the charity said three-quarters were being acquitted or given a community sentence.
By contrast, remands to non-secure local authority accommodation have dropped by 43% in the past four years in England and Wales.
The PRT said the rise in child remands to custody was in contravention of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states they should only be held “as a last resort” and for the shortest period of time.
“Something is going very wrong when so many children are locked up on remand, but deemed safe enough to be released into the community if convicted and sentenced,” its report said.
The PRT’s probe into the use of child remands suggested that local authorities had a “perverse incentive” not to provide alternative accommodation as custody is funded by central government.
It also found that new legislation over the past ten years had given courts greater discretion to imprison children on remand.
The charity raised particular concern over the “disproportionate” number of 17-year-olds remanded into custody. Currently, they have no legal access to emergency accommodation in the community if detained by police overnight, unlike those aged 16 and under.
And if refused bail, 17-year-olds are treated like adults by being automatically sent to custody, while 15- and 16-year-olds can be remanded to local authority accommodation.
The charity also warned that too many black children were being remanded to custody and said the system was failing children with mental health problems or learning disabilities.
The PRT made 12 recommendations including:
- Changing the law to stop unnecessary remand so that children are only imprisoned if there is evidence they may commit a violent offence if released on bail.
- Delegating the remand budget from central to local government to give councils “greater incentive” to prevent offending and offer “robust” alternatives to custody.
- Changing the law so 17-year-olds are treated comparably with other children.
- Improving bail supervision.
Penelope Gibbs, director of the Prison Reform Trusts’ programme to reduce child and youth imprisonment, said the official policy of only jailing children in exceptional circumstances was being “widely ignored” despite the costs of prison and the damage it did to children.
“It is disturbing that in many parts of the country prison is being used as a convenient place to park innocent children while they await trial. If we want an effective and decent youth justice system which is focused on helping children out of trouble rather than criminalising them, the government must work with local councils and courts to put a stop to this abuse of the remand system,” she added.
Responding to the findings, Tim Bateman, senior policy development officer at criminal justice charity Nacro, said young people awaiting trial should be offered community support and supervision unless they posed a serious risk of harm to the public.
“All young people below the age of 18 should be treated as children first and offenders second,” he added.