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20 Nov 2014

Government still failing children in custody

The number of boys and girls in custody in England and Wales has fallen by 65 per cent in six years – but the government is still failing to meet its international obligations in relation to the human rights of children behind bars.

Penal institutions in England and Wales have been criticised for their use of force on children, including the infliction of pain, as well as the use of segregation and solitary confinement.

The age of criminal responsibility – 10 – has also attracted international criticism for being too low and needlessly bringing children into trouble with the law.

The government’s failure is outlined in a report by the Howard League for Penal Reform, published today (Thursday 20 November) to mark the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

As part of an EU-funded project, the Howard League in cooperation with charities across Europe has reviewed progress against recommendations made to England and Wales by monitors of four international conventions:

  • United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child
  • United Nations Convention Against Torture
  • Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture
  • European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The report reveals that the number of children in custody fell from 3,019 in August 2008 to 1,068 in August 2014. Changes have been made to the use of remand in an attempt to ensure that children are not unnecessarily deprived of their liberty. However, 60 per cent of children held on remand still go on to be acquitted or to receive a non-custodial sentence.

Despite international criticism, restraint is still being used on children and segregation and solitary confinement are overused. The majority of children are held in prisons, where much of their time is spent locked in their cells with little to occupy them in terms of education and purposeful activity.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Everyone should welcome the news that the number of children behind bars in England and Wales has fallen by two-thirds in only six years. The government should be commended for overseeing this, but the Howard League report reveals that there is still much work to be done. When the number of children in prison behind bars is falling, the government’s plans to build Europe’s biggest jail for children are, frankly, bizarre. The children in prisons today have complex mental health, learning and social needs that cannot be addressed in a penal institution. I have seen children with cuts they have inflicted on themselves who swallow objects or attempt to hang themselves being held in solitary confinement in prisons. We have to put a stop to this.”

Notes to editors

  1. The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the world. It is a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison. It has consultative status with both the United Nations and the Council of Europe.
  2. The full report can be downloaded here.


Rob Preece
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