Youth justice is my passion, and the reason I remain optimistic about the criminal justice system. Since 2007 when I began a campaign to reduce the number of children in prison, the number incarcerated in England and Wales has dropped by two thirds, the number prosecuted in court has gone down radically, and youth crime has reduced too. But the system still focusses punishment on the deeply disadvantaged, and bits of it don’t work well – as shown by Panorama on Medway STC. Michael Gove tasked Charlie Taylor with reviewing the system, and he brought out an interim report this week.
Charlie calls for radical change in what is euphemistically termed the “children’s secure estate” – change which is way overdue. As Charlie points out, the children in prison are some of the most damaged and challenging, but are looked after by those with minimal training and experience. “Rather than preparing children for life on the outside, too often these establishments seem to be teaching children how to survive in prison”. Charlie is proposing the end of prison custody for under 18 year olds, to be replaced by secure free schools – small, local and led by teachers.
Almost anything would be an improvement on the current system where teenage boys spend hours cooped up alone in their cells. Free secure schools could be great. But if they are to work, they will be expensive and there is no money sloshing around the Ministry of Justice. So we need to reduce the number of children who are imprisoned to free up funds. 30% of children in prison are there for non-violent offences including not turning up for appointments (breach), criminal damage and fraud. 23% are on remand, mostly awaiting trial. The craziest aspect of the current system is the length of the detention and training order sentence. This prison sentence lasts for an average of 108 days – long enough to destroy ties with family and community and to develop an offender identity, but not nearly long enough to develop relationships and to benefit properly from education and health services. There is no gain in imprisoning children for short sentences. It is pointless punishment. These children need to be rehabilitated in the community, and custody left as a “last resort”.