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Government needs tighter controls on child sentencing

Children as young as 12 are being locked up too quickly, too easily.

This is despite the Government’s clear intention that custody for children should be a last resort.

A Barnardo’s study of children aged 12, 13 and 14 years old who have served a custodial sentence, has found that more than a third of them should not have been put behind bars, when judged against the Government’s own criteria.

The law states children aged 14 and under should not be sent to custody unless they have committed a grave offence or have committed a serious offence and are deemed to be a persistent offender.

But Barnardo’s examination of the cases of 214 children - 46 per cent of those in this age group sent to custody in 2007/08 - found that more than a third did not meet this criterion but were still incarcerated. That suggests that 170 children in England and Wales should not have been put behind bars that year.

More than 20 per cent had been sent to custody for breaching a community order such as a supervision or anti social behaviour order.

The study also reveals that:

  • just under half the children locked up had been abused
  • more than a third were living with a known offender
  • 38 per cent had witnessed violence in their family
  • 8 per cent had attempted suicide
  • the likelihood of being sent to custody varied significantly by postcode.

Locking up or giving up? – the second in a series of reports from Barnardo’s – gathered evidence from 61 youth offending teams (YOTs).

The children’s charity’s chief executive and former director general of the prison service Martin Narey said:

"Barnardo’s is realistic about the reality that some children, even those as young as 12, need to be locked up.

But 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.

Until 1998 it would have been illegal to send a child of this age to custody unless they had committed one of the so called ‘grave offences’. Now we do this, every year, to more than 400 children aged 12, 13 and 14.

What are we thinking of? 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.

We are calling for stricter, clearer rules on sending children as young as 12 to custody so that practice can be brought into line with Government policy."

Barnardo’s is calling for:

  • strict sentencing rules which reflect the intention of Parliament and Government so that children aged 14 and under cannot be considered for custody unless they have committed a grave crime or unless they have committed a serious offence and are a persistent offender; combined with
  • a clear definition of persistency – so that custody is reserved for those whose offending really merits it
  • a breach of a community based sentence never to result in a custody sentence for a child aged 14 or under unless there has been a serious or violent offence
  • a requirement in national standards for YOTs to support children to comply with conditions of community orders
  • guidance instructing courts to seek further information about children who have experienced abuse, neglect or disadvantage
  • steps to allow children serving a detention and training order to be placed other than in the secure estate.


Notes to editors

  1. Download Locking up or giving up? Why custody thresholds for teenagers aged 12, 13 and 14 (PDF).
  2. The survey looked at children aged 12, 13 and 14 who received a detention and training order in 2007/08 – the only custodial sentence available for children this age other than for those who commit grave crimes and they have been excluded from this research.
  3. In November 2008, in a report of an interview with Jack Straw for The House Magazine, the editor said: “Straw’s tough Home Secretary persona is also notably absent when he talks about youth justice. Custody for children and young people ‘is always a last resort’ he says. And while he stresses that sentencing is a matter for the courts, he argues that children are only sent to jail ‘if they’ve committed grave offences – murders or rapes or offences like that, when there is no option but to give them custody’.”
  4. Child custody is expensive and ineffective, with re-offending rates at 80 per cent.
  5. Custody is expensive; it can cost as much as £185,780 to accommodate one young person for a year.

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