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Why are so many children kept in police cells overnight?

Penelope Gibbs
22 Nov 2019
A night in a cell is an intimidating experience. Police custody facilities are designed to detain adults suspected of criminal activity, and they offer little in the way of comfort or emotional reassurance. For a child – especially one deprived of familial support – a prolonged stay in this environment can be harmful.
Home Office concordat on children in custody

In 2014/2015 22,000 children were held overnight in 39 police forces in England and Wales. That is many thousands too many and this week the charity Just for Kids Law suggested to custody sergeants (at their six monthly conference) how they might reduce that number.

The debate has until recently focussed on children (under 18 year olds) who are kept in overnight after they have been charged. Legally such children should never be spending the night in police cells. They are supposed to be accommodated by their local authority children’s services (in a children’s home, specialist hostel or foster home) until they can be transported to court. But only 5% of all children remanded by the police are transferred from the custody suite. Police ring their local council once they’ve decided to remand a child, but the council usually tells them they have no spare beds, particularly when asked for secure accommodation. The problem is that such children are low priority for hard pressed social services, there genuinely is very little emergency accommodation and social services know that the police will manage if they say no.

Just for Kids Law regularly sue local authorities who have refused to accommodate child defendants. Local authorities usually settle out of court, and pay compensation to the child concerned. But should councils get a say in the decision to remand? Is it always justified? The criteria the police use to remand a child should be as strict as those used by the courts, but they aren’t. And most children remanded by police don’t get a custodial sentence, which at least begs the question as to whether it was right for the police to remand them in the first place.

However the Just for Kids spotlight is now shining on the children who are detained by the police pre-charge. The surprising and concerning finding of their study of custody records is that most (88%) children who are detained overnight have not yet been charged and are being investigated. The law allows for the police to detain suspects for up to 24 hours before charging them. This 24 hour rule applies to children and adults alike. And unfortunately the processing of children often takes longer than adults. Children need to be interviewed with an appropriate adult present – if a family member is not available the police need to contact a provider and wait for an AA, often a volunteer, to arrive.

The question is why children really need to be detained pre-charge? Why aren’t more interviewed voluntarily at a pre-arranged time? Dr Miranda Bevan researched children in police custody for three years. She found that custody officers aren’t distinguishing between grounds for arrest and grounds to authorise detention. The reasons they give for detention are often reasons such as for the child’s own safety or to prevent harm to others, which don’t qualify as the narrow grounds for detention for evidence-gathering purposes. Miranda thinks some of the grounds used for justifying detention – searching home addresses or seizing phones, could be done without the need to detain the child in custody e.g. under other PACE powers (section 32 and section 18). She says there is a lack of understanding about these alternative routes, and they are also less convenient for the police. For example, searching someone’s home is more hassle when they’re there with you.

So what is the problem with children being held in police detention? Kieran, a boy who works with Just for Kids Law has experienced police custody several times. He said it was extremely stressful partly because the time seems interminable. There is no clock in a police cell and nothing whatsoever to do. No mobile phone or any other entertainment. So a child just waits and waits never knowing when the wait is going to end, often not knowing whether it is day or night. They can sometimes hear adults screaming and yelling around them.

At the conference of police officers this week, I met Chief Inspector Nick Finnis of Kent Police. He used to be a youth worker and feels strongly that police custody is no place for children. As head of custody, he regularly turns down requests by officers to detain children. Unless its clear there is no other way to investigate and/or keep the child safe, he asks officers to bail or RUI children. And through dint of such persistence, officers now usually do.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. Campaigning by the Howard League, Just for Kids Law and others have highlighted the over-use of police custody for children. Senior police like Nick Finnis have put their backs into changing practice, and numbers detained have more than halved in recent years. But there is still a long way to go to achieve #nochildincells.