Children in Prison – Good News from England and Wales


The number of children under 18 who are imprisoned in England and Wales has fallen by a third over the last three years, from about 3,000 in the first half of 2008 to around 2,000 in the first part of 2011.

This unexpected fall represents the largest decline in custody for children since the 1980’s. It does not reflect a broader trend in the use of custody, which has risen foradults. The fall has been largely brought about by fewer children being sentenced to Detention and Training Orders with particularly marked declines in the numbers of younger children and girls. Declines have been particularly marked in large conurbations. The falls have not applied as much to black and minority ethnic children as to white.

A number of factors explain the fall but it is not the case that reducing custody has been a deliberate or overt policy objective in central government. Rather, a range of dynamics behind the scenes have worked together to reduce the number of children appearing before the courts, reducing the proportion of these children who are sentenced to custody.

Responsibility for youth justice in government transferred from the Home Office to the Ministry of Justice and Department for Children, Schools and Families in 2007 and local authorities were required to pay greater attention to meeting the needs of children inconflict with the law. Incentives for the police to bring minor cases into the system were removed and as a result informal and constructive responses were developed.

This has led to a marked fall in the number of first-time entrants to the youth justice system, although the extent to which this represents a change in crime levels or a change in the way children are dealt with, in particular by the police, is difficult to disentangle.

The overall level of crime as a whole and of serious youth violence declined across the country between 2008 and 2010. It is worth noting that the reduction in the child custodial population appears to have been achieved without prompting any increase in youth crime.

The number of children appearing in court has fallen by almost a quarter since 2008 but despite dealing with smaller numbers of more serious and persistent cases, the courts have sentenced a lower percentage of them to custody. These changes in sentencing may to an extent reflect the impact of legislative changes in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 and a constructive guideline published by the Sentencing Guidelines Council, but the fall in custody started well before these came into effect at the end of 2009.

There is some evidence of a greater engagement between the Youth Justice Board and youth offending teams on the one hand and courts on the other, which may have developed a shared view that custody should be a last resort.

Outside the system, initiatives such as Out of Trouble have developed innovative ways of raising awareness of the use of custody for children nationally and locally and provided technical assistance in areas with high rates of custodial sentencing.

While difficult to assess its impact, it appears that the climate of political, media and public opinion has not led to demands for a greater use of custody during this period. Prior to the publication of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill in June 2011, there was a considerable backlash against what was portrayed in parts of themedia as an unduly soft approach to sentencing by the coalition government. The backlash and the changes in policy which resulted have by and large not applied to measures for the 10-17 age range.

Experience suggests that sudden and unexpected reversals in policy are always possible but there are other more predictable aspects whichlie ahead – cuts to services, the restoration of discretion to local authorities and the proposed election of police and crime commissioners – which could have a major impact on levels of custody in the future. The role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will remain crucial in this context.

For further details see here.

Exploring the reduction in child imprisonment 2008-11 by Rob Allen.