Is the short, sharp shock of child remand really necessary? A new report from Transform Justice suggests not. It is stressful for any child to be imprisoned, but even more so if they are maintaining their innocence of the crime of which they are accused. Whereas a child who is sentenced to prison has some preparation, a child remanded pre-trial is catapulted from police custody to court, and from court to custody. No wonder prison inspectors found that boys on remand were more likely to feel unsafe than those who have been sentenced.
In October 2018, a sixteen year old boy William Lindsay committed suicide in a Scottish prison, YOI Polmont. He was a troubled and occasionally troublesome child who had spent most of his life in care. He had not been convicted but was charged with possessing a knife – a knife which he had taken into the police station and put on the counter. Why such a child was remanded at all is a mystery, more mysterious was his imprisonment in a child prison. Apparently the authorities tried and failed to find a place in a secure children’s home, so resorted to Polmont Young Offenders’ Institution. William, who was known to have fragile mental health, only lasted 48 hours behind bars before taking his own life. A debate in the Scottish parliament focused on where William was imprisoned, but not whether detention was really necessary.
Transform Justice’s work on the use of pre-trial detention for children in England & Wales suggests that the tragedy of William Lindsay could happen here, and that it’s the decision to imprison which needs scrutiny. Most of the children who are detained pre-trial in England and Wales are either acquitted or get a non-custodial sentence. Most are imprisoned on remand for less than three weeks and last year 180 children were remanded to custody for 7 days or less. It looks as if we are warehousing children in prison while we better assess the risk they pose, and then deciding that the original risk assessment was over-cautious.
The problems start in the police station where too many children are detained in police cells overnight. Any child detained overnight then has to be taken to court the next working day and, if pleading not guilty, is released on bail, subject to local authority supervision in the community, or imprisoned on remand. The speed of the process means that the defence and the youth offending team don’t have enough time to gather information about the child and prepare a bail package – which might reassure the prosecution and the bench. Faced with little information and huge pressure to get through cases quickly, magistrates err on the side of caution and tend to agree with most prosecution recommendations to refuse bail.
Transform Justice’s report calls for a different, more pragmatic approach. Prison is a dead end which should be a last resort for children. If all those involved in the decision to remand children focused on the genuine risk posed by the child in the community (in most cases low if well supervised) versus the risk of a short, sharp, shock in prison, we could reduce the number remanded by half or more. And every time we imprison a child, seemingly for our convenience, its worth remembering that a short period of imprisonment is always traumatic and never beneficial.