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2 Sep 2015

Howard League announces radical strategy to keep children out of prison

The Howard League for Penal Reform has today (Wednesday 2 September) written to Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Justice, recommending a raft of radical youth justice reforms that would help children and save the taxpayer millions.

The letter, written by the Howard League’s Chief Executive, Frances Crook, sets out a strategy for reducing the number of children in custody, which would enable the government to close prisons and provide more funding for services that tackle the causes of reoffending.

It recommends the closure of two secure training centres – Rainsbrook, in Northamptonshire, and Medway, in Kent – whose contracts are due for renewal. This would bring savings worth up to £181million over the next seven years.

It also calls for the abolition of detention and training orders, reform of youth courts, a new role for the Youth Justice Board, and measures to address the disproportionately high number of black and minority ethnic children in custody.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Although significant challenges arise in times of strained public resources, they also present an opportunity for radical reform. We are all so much more than the worst thing we have done. All children deserve the possibility of redemption and hope for a positive future. Communities deserve to feel safe. Taxpayers deserve to see their money well spent. Only by taking a radical approach can a lasting solution be found.”

The letter to Mr Gove makes 11 recommendations. They are:

Recommendations for immediate action

Do not renew contracts for Medway and Rainsbrook secure training centres.
There is an opportunity to close these centres, which would generate considerable savings, and invest the money into evidence-based interventions and preventing children from coming into contact with the youth justice system in the first place.

Recommendations for action within the next three to six months

Introduce legislation to abolish the Detention and Training Order.
In the last year, almost 2,000 children were sentenced to a Detention and Training Order (DTO). The average length of a DTO was 15 weeks. Research published by the Youth Justice Board raised serious concerns about short-term prison sentences, concluding that they provide “insufficient time for staff to build strong relationships with young people or to provide appropriate and effective interventions which could be carried forward upon release”.

Address the over-representation of black and minority ethnic (BAME) children in prison.
BAME children now account for 41 per cent of the total child prison population. A cross-governmental board should be established to review the reasons for this over-representation and to devise a strategy to reduce the number of BAME children in prison.

Devolve the custody budget to local authorities.
Making local authorities financially responsible for children in custody would increase accountability and allow them to invest in prevention and alternatives to custody.

Review the use of remand.
Almost 2,000 children were remanded to custody in 2013-14. Of these, 62 per cent were either acquitted or not given a custodial sentence.

Issue guidance that encourages a flexible and proportionate response to breaches of statutory orders.
Children on licence can be recalled to custody, without first appearing in court, for missing appointments, being late home or not going to school. Many children who breach their sentence conditions do it because of their chaotic lives and lack of family support. The period on licence should be one focused on support rather than compliance.

Build on and promote evidence-based good practice and interventions that work.
As gatekeepers to the criminal justice system, police forces across the country have reduced the number of child arrests they make by almost 60 per cent in six years. The Howard League will continue to work with police to strive for further reductions. Further investment should be made in evidence-based community interventions, such as multi-systemic therapy and intensive fostering, which are considerably cheaper and more effective than custodial disposals.

Recommendations for action within the next six to 18 months

Close prison places for children.
Implementing the recommendations above would reduce the number of children in prison by 700. This would allow for the closure of the remaining young offender institutions, saving at least £63million per year and almost certainly much more.

Revise the role of the youth courts.
With fewer children coming into contact with the criminal justice system, there would be less demand on youth courts processing children day-to-day. This would allow them to concentrate on the few serious cases brought before them and develop expertise. Youth courts should be given wider powers to ensure that welfare needs are met.

Address the shortage of suitable secure accommodation in London.
In 2009 the Youth Justice Board decided to close the only secure children’s home in the capital. There are now four beds in a secure children’s home in Southampton for the whole of London and the South East. Unless investment in a small local unit is made, the few children from these areas who require a period in a suitable placement in custody face being hundreds of miles from their families.

Transform the Youth Justice Board.
The Youth Justice Board could be transformed into an independent expert body, operating as a centre for best practice and scrutinising and sharing what works with children in trouble with the law. It should also establish an independent scrutiny panel to review the case of each child who is imprisoned, so that lessons can be learnt. The purpose would be to ensure that custody is only used as a last resort, for the shortest period of time, and to highlight where children have been failed by other services, such as education, health and social care.

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.
  2. The Howard League’s letter to the Secretary of State for Justice can be read in full here.

Further information

Rob Preece
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