Politicians from all parties are engaged in an arms race of rhetoric in relation to their approach to children in contact with the criminal justice system. The media fuels the arms race with sensationalist headlines: ‘yobs’, ‘asbo kids’, ‘monsters’ and ‘evil’ have become common place, encouraging a vicious cycle in which politicians find themselves locked into increasing the punitive stakes to satisfy the appetites of the media and populist opinion.
The increasingly punitive approach that has emerged over the last 20 years, whether it be in creating more crimes, creating longer sentences, or reducing the quality of type of prison that children are sent to, have left our society in a position where we are spending £415 million a year on incarcerating children in prisons that do not work – a shocking 75% of children reoffend within a year of being released, higher than any other age group in prison.
Behind the headlines and political rhetoric lie the facts of who these children are. 71% of children in custody have been involved with or in the care of social services; 2 out of 5 girls and 1 out of 4 boys have suffered violence at home; 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 20 boys have suffered sexual abuse. Educational, behavioural and mental health problems are rife – 85% show signs of a personality disorder. The prevalence of depression, self harm and suicide is higher amongst incarcerated children that any other sector in our society – 89% of girls in our prisons deliberately self-harm and children in custody are 18 times more prone to take their own life than children of the same age in the community.
Children in prison are the product of chaos, neglect and abuse, but rather than help these children we incarcerate them, locking them away with the problems in our society we would rather not face. To continue the rhetoric arms race is both nonsensical and irresponsible. It damages these children further at an extraordinary cost to the tax payer. But it is easier to separate these children from the rest of us, to point the finger of blame and label them as an ‘other’ than to take responsibility that it is our society and its failings that has made them who they are.
the Howard League for Penal Reform