'Locking children up' has been a contentious issue for many years, and is something the government is attempting to address through a reduction in the use of custody. December 2009 saw a reduction of 512 from the previous year with 2203 under 18's in custody (Youth Justice Board, 20th February 2010). This reduction has been achieved through the greater use of alternative punishments such as restorative justice and youth rehabilitation orders. However, there is little evidence that offending is being substantially reduced. This essay argues that custodial sentences are not a suitable option for young people, and that alternative punishments should be adopted, with a shift away from incarceration to rehabilitation, in order to reduce reoffending.
The first penal institution built exclusively for young people was established at Parkhurst Prison for boys in 1838 (Muncie et al,2002). During the 1980's there were many different approaches and systems in place to deal with youth offenders, but the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act (CDA) replaced them with a Detention and Training Order (DTO), which came into force in April 2000 (Muncie,2009). The DTO has given the courts power to sentence more young offenders to custody, in particular for those in breach of community orders (Barnardo's,2008).
In 2008 nearly a quarter of custodial sentences were given for breach of statutory orders (NACRO,2009), which does not necessarily mean they have reoffended, rather some may have merely missed appointments with their YOT worker, or breached an Anti Social Behaviour Order (ASBO). It could therefore be argued that nearly a quarter of those given custodial sentences do not need to be in custody as they are not a serious threat or risk to society. Instead the focus should be placed on dealing with the issues they face, and trying to improve their circumstances, enabling them to adhere to the orders they are placed under, and steer clear from a life of crime.
There are three types of secure accommodation in which a young offender can be placed. Firstly, Secure Training Centres (STC) built for young offenders up to the age of 17 provide education, training and rehabilitation. Secondly, there are Local Authority Secure Children's Homes (LASCH's), which provide support tailored to the individuals needs, focussing on the physical, emotional and behavioural needs of the young people they accommodate. LASCH's accommodate young people aged between 12 and 16. Young Offender Institutions (YOI) run by the prison service accommodate 15 to 21 year olds. It was recorded that in December 2009 there were 152 in LASCH's, 234 in STC's and 1817 in YOI's, clearly indicating that the most punitive, YOI is still the most utilised penal punishment.
There are many arguments for the use of custody, such as public protection and deterrence. In the October 1993 Conservative Party Conference the then Home Secretary Michael Howard said; "Let us be clear. Prison works". This was reaffirmed in July 2006 by the then Home Secretary John Reid when he stated "To keep the public safe, it is critical that those convicted of crime, especially violent crime, serve sentences behind bars" (Home Office (HO),2006). The severity of sentences has generally increased since Labour came into government in 1997 as Tony Blair wanted to cast away his party's image of being soft on crime and tackling crime was a key policy for New Labour in the 1997 elections (Morris,2007). This transition has come under some criticism, in particular the unnecessary severity of sentences given to juveniles aged between 15 and 20.
It was reported that in November 1998 there were 11,500 juveniles of this age in prison (Joyce,2006;447). Although offenders do need to be punished, the deprivation of education and basic life skills can only be detrimental to the young person (Joyce,2006). This has led to a lot of dispute over the imprisonment of children, and the effect of prison becoming a 'university of crime' where minor offenders and youths learn the 'tricks of the trade' from seasoned inmates. This therefore results in them returning to society even more criminalised and a contributing reason for the 80 per cent reoffending rates of youths (Prison Reform Trust (PRT),2006).
For many young offenders custody is an opportunity to lead a more structured lifestyle and to return to education or training. For some this may be the only opportunity of re-entering the education system, as only 6 per cent of Youth Offending Team (YOT) workers said that young offenders were able to continue educational courses after release. This is generally due to logistical problems in finding suitable courses and a reluctance of schools to accept young people that might have previously been excluded (National Audit Office,2004).
The James Bulger murder in 1993 was a turning point in societies view on violent criminality creating a sense of revulsion and fear of violence (Morris,2007). The CDA 1998 reflected this with the abolition of the 'Doli Incapax' principle, which presumed that a child aged between 10 and 14 was not capable of committing a criminal offence (Muncie,2009;275). This fear of youth crime and violence has periodically been reinstated with horrifying instances such as the recent attacks in Doncaster. However, violent and sexual offending accounts for less than 18 per cent of indictable offences committed by children and young people (NACRO,2009).
The prison system is failing children in custody who want to turn their lives around, according to research by the Chief Inspector of Prisons and the YJB (PRT,2009). A study in 2008 found a severe overrepresentation of care-leavers and ethnic minorities in custody (Guardian,2009) and established that 70% said they wanted to stop offending, but only 37% thought that they had done anything in prison to make that more likely (HMIP,2009). Youth crime cannot therefore be effectively dealt with if those wanting to change their lives are not doing anything towards that whilst in custody.
Cllr Les Lawrence, the Local Government Association's (LGA) spokesperson on Children and Young People said at a conference in 2006 that "more and more children are being locked up for offences that are less and less serious" (LGA,2006). It is a growing concern that thousands of young people are caught in a vicious circle that condemns them to a life of crime and does nothing to make the nation a safer place. Although "the worst offenders still need to go into custody as the protection of the public must be put first" (LGA,2006), the majority of offenders in custody are not a serious threat, and therefore dealing with them in the community would be more effective and cost the taxpayer less.