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12 May 2011

Children imprisoned just for missing appointments

Too many children and teenagers are locked up, not for committing criminal or anti-social behaviour, but for failing to keep to the conditions of a previous court order. This is in spite of the fact that there is no evidence that tough enforcement is effective in reducing youth crime. In a new report commissioned from NCB, and launched in Parliament today, the Prison Reform Trust explores how and why so many children and teenagers are punished for missing appointments or for transgressing the terms of their anti-social behaviour order.

“Although magistrates are told not to set young people up to fail, we are limited and impose orders we know aren’t going to work.”

Youth court magistrate

One in 8 (13%) under-18 year olds imprisoned in England and Wales are there mainly for failing to comply with their order, and the younger the child in custody, the greater the likelihood they are there for breach. However this research suggests that children who breach may not do it deliberately.

“Like on my birthday, I went into town, into JD Sports to see what the clothes were. The camera saw me and the police turned up. My picture went into the town centre, it was at the Post Office and McDonald’s. I was breached at McDonald’s — I wasn’t being naughty — just sitting there.”

Child imprisoned for breach of an ASBO

Children and teenagers who breach often live difficult lives, with violence at home, fear of rival gangs and drug abuse. Yet we expect them to turn up on time to a series of appointments, sometimes several times a week, at different times, sometimes in different places, with different individuals and to observe strict curfews. Some children’s lives are so chaotic that they see custody as a respite from their problems in the community. This report suggests the system needs to be re-balanced so that children and teenagers get more help to comply with their orders, and practitioners have more discretion to deal with those who cannot.

Key facts from the research:

  • More children and teenagers are imprisoned for breach than for burglary.
  • In 2009/10 13% of the child custodial population had been imprisoned primarily for breach of a statutory order –  for 9% of the children in custody, breach was the only reason.
  • One in six 10-14 year olds in custody last year was imprisoned primarily for breach.
  • A greater proportion of girls and younger children are in custody for breach than older boys, despite the fact that they are less likely to commit breach offences.
  • Nearly three quarters of 10-14 year olds given an ASBO, end up breaching it.
  • In eight of the 32 criminal justice areas that have issued ASBOs to 10-11 year olds, ALL of them have been breached.
  • Guidance for YOT practitioners states that children and teenagers who miss three appointments should be sent back to court.
  • There is an expectation that all ASBO breaches will be prosecuted, regardless of the circumstances, and practitioners are not generally aware that there are alternatives.

Penelope Gibbs, Director of the Prison Reform Trust’s Out of Trouble programme, said:

“We all want less crime and fewer victims, but it is not clear that the breach system is achieving this. One in eight of those under 18 year olds imprisoned in England and Wales is there mainly for missing appointments or breaking their curfew. It is wasteful and expensive to use imprisonment for this purpose, particularly given that over 70% of teenagers leaving custody reoffend within a year. This report suggests legislative and practice change is needed to help children engage with the justice system and prevent breach.”

Di Hart, author of the report from the National Children’s Bureau said:

“The way that court orders against children are currently enforced risks setting them up to fail. Such a rigid approach doesn’t recognise the chaotic lives that many of the children are leading – or even the impulsivity that characterises normal adolescence. This is not to say that children on court orders should be left to get on with it, but the emphasis should be on engaging them in activities that will change their behaviour rather than in punishing them when they don’t, or can’t, comply.”

Stephen Dunmore, Interim Chief Executive of The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund (supporters of Out of Trouble), said:

“This important new report from the Prison Reform Trust highlights the strong relationship between social disadvantage, breach of statutory orders and custody. We believe that custody should be used only as a last resort for children and young people and support the report’s recommendation that both statutory orders and decision-making around non-compliance should be made with greater reference to the needs and circumstances of the children and young people concerned.”

Report recommendations include that:

  • Practitioners ensure orders given to children are achievable and children are not being set up to fail.
  • The quality and effectiveness of work with children in the community should be improved.
  • The road to breach action should be lengthened.
  • The welfare needs that lead to offending and anti-social behaviour should be identified and met.