Govt jails young children ‘unnecessarily’

By Liz Stephens

Children as young as 12 are being locked up by the government – contrary to its own sentencing criteria, a leading children’s charity has found.

More than a third of children aged 12 to 14 who have served a custodial sentence should not have been put behind bars, a report by Barnado’s has found.

The law states that children under 14 should not be sent to custody unless they have committed a grave offence like murder or a serious offence and have a history of persistent offending.

But Barnado’s examined the cases of 214 children and found the criminal profile of over a third did not match the laws on custodial sentencing.

More than 20 per cent were sent to custody for breaching a supervision order or an Asbo.

The charity estimates that 170 children in England and Wales should not have been put behind bars in 2007-08.

The study also revealed that just under half the children locked up had been abused and eight per cent had attempted suicide.

It also found that the likelihood of children being sent to custody varied significantly by postcode.

Martin Narey, chief executive of Barnado’s and former director general of the prison service, said: “The clear intention of government and of parliament is that custody for teenagers as young as this should, genuinely, be used only as a last resort.

“This is a tragedy for the young people themselves, it’s a shocking waste of money and, in terms of reducing their offending and doing anything to protect victims it is almost invariably ineffective.”

Liberal Democrat justice spokesman David Howarth said: “The government’s obsession with looking tough has led to large numbers of children being put behind bars when they shouldn’t be.

“Prison should be the absolute last resort for the most serious and serial child offenders, not a default position for breaches of community sentences or ASBOs.

“Locking kids from very difficult backgrounds up is likely to turn them into serious criminals as adults. Ministers should focus instead on what works to stop re-offending – such as restorative and community justice.”

Barnado’s is calling for stricter, clearer rules on custodial sentences for children.