Please note not all views expressed in the film and on the blog necessarily reflect the views of coalition members.
The self-fulfilling prophesy that's doubled our prison population,
demonised our young and costs us billions...
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Friday, 12 February 2010


The rise in the prison population since Labour came to power in 1997 has been dramatic, with a third more people behind bars. But there has been an even more startling rise in the number of very young children imprisoned. In the decade from 1996 the use of custody for 10 to 14 year olds increased by a staggering 400%. England and Wales now stand out almost alone in Western society in routinely incarcerating large numbers of young children who offend.

The law is clear that children should only be sent to prison if their offending has been grave or both serious and persistent. Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, has further asserted that children as young as 12, 13 and 14 should only ever be incarcerated when it is the only way to protect the public. So are the teenagers being sent to custody guilty of grave crimes or of serious and persistent offending? Are they all violent? Do they pose an unmanageable risk to the public? In fact, research by Barnardo’s published last year (Locking up or giving up?) shows that many of them are neither violent nor dangerous. They have been found guilty of non-violent offences and some are guilty only of summary offences, the least serious on the statute book and those which, in the case of adults, are rarely punished by imprisonment.

Barnardo’s examined 214 cases of children under 15 who had been sentenced to custody but had not committed grave crimes or been given extended sentences for serious offending. We found that one in five was in prison for breach of a community sanction and nearly a third had not committed a serious or violent offence. Overall, 35 per cent of the sample did not appear to meet the custody threshold as set out in legislation. This clearly demonstrates that the government’s intention of making custody for young children genuinely a last resort is not reflected in sentencing practice.

When we looked at the life circumstances of the children it was depressingly clear that those who end up in custody are almost always those most failed by our welfare and education systems. Half had experienced some form of abuse, one in five were living in care,16 per cent had special educational needs and 8 per cent had attempted suicide at some point in their young lives.
If these children had been given the support they needed earlier in their lives there is every reason to believe that they would not have ended up in prison. Instead they are more likely to be written off by the age of 14, failed by mainstream services when it really matters.
Using custody for children who have not committed grave and serious crimes is costly and ineffective. They do not pose a danger to the public, if anything they are a greater danger to themselves than anybody else. Can anyone really believe that we need to lock so many of them away?

Enver Solomon
Assistant Director, Policy

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