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24 June 2011

PRT comment: national fall in number of child prison sentences disguises huge variation

An analysis of data on the numbers of children imprisoned from different areas shows that there is still huge variation between local authority areas. Nationally there has been a 24% drop in the number of custodial sentences meted out to children. The national drop is due to a fall in the number of children appearing in court, to a change in sentencing guidelines, to the work of the Youth Justice Board and to a growing realisation that child custody is ineffective.

Of children who are sentenced to custody, three quarters are reconvicted within a year of being released. But some areas have seen huge decreases in their use of custody and others increases. In Northamptonshire, Swansea, Sutton and Wokingham the number of custodial sentences in 2009/10 was less than a quarter of those the previous year.

In contrast, in Cornwall, Powys and Monmouthshire and Torfaen the number of custodial sentences doubled. As in previous years, Merthyr Tydfil has the highest use of child custody in the country and has seen the number of custodial sentences given to children going up by a third over the past year. 1 in 5 children convicted in court in Merthyr Tydfil are imprisoned while in Wokingham fewer than 1 in 100 are.

The Prison Reform Trust’s Out of Trouble programme, supported by The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, has worked with a number of youth offending teams, including Leeds and Hull, to help them reduce their use of custody.  PRT’s work appears to have made a positive difference. While the number of custodial sentences decreased by 24% across England and Wales, the average decrease for areas PRT worked with was 32%.

Penelope Gibbs, director of the Out of Trouble programme, said:

The Prison Reform Trust is incredibly pleased that the number of custodial sentences has dropped so much, because we believe that imprisonment should be reserved for children who have committed serious violent crimes.  But the variation in the use of custody across different areas shows that more progress can be made, and that YOT action can make a difference.  The Out of Trouble programme has worked with areas wanting to reduce their use of custody, and all have succeeded in doing so, some radically. We know that youth offending teams cannot control judicial decisions but they can do lots of things to influence those decisions and to reduce the unnecessary use of custody. Unfortunately none of these areas will gain financially through reducing the number of children sent to custody. That is why we fully support government moves to delegate the cost of custody and thus financially reward councils who make big efforts.