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14 July 2011

Why the number of under 18 year olds in custody has reduced by a third

The number of children imprisoned in England and Wales has fallen from about 3,000 in the first half of 2008 to around 2,000 three years later. This significant fall has happened in parallel with a rise in the adult prison population, and despite any major legislative changes. The reduction in youth custody has occurred without an increase in youth crime.

In Last resort? Exploring the reduction in child imprisonment 2008–11, report author Rob Allen analyses why this has happened:

  • There has been a concerted effort to get children out of trouble and avoid their entering the youth justice system in the first place.
  • Fewer children have been given custodial sentences, particularly younger children and girls.
  • Local councils became more aware of their use of custody, and it became part of their performance framework.
  • The number of children being convicted has fallen significantly.
  • The police have been encouraged to prevent children entering the youth justice system.
  • Youth Offending teams, particularly in urban areas, have improved their relationship with the court and planned to reduce their use of custody.
  • The Youth Justice Board, while abandoning targets to reduce custody, has disseminated good practice and put pressure on high custody YOTs to reduce their numbers.
  • Campaigns such as the Prison Reform Trust’s Out of Trouble programme have supported YOTs and lobbied for change.

Rob Allen said:

“For the future, there are a number of ways of building upon the success achieved in reducing the number of children in custody. The most obvious challenge is to reduce the use of custodial remands. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill introduces a new legal framework for the remand of all those under 18 in custody. This should result in fewer 17 year olds (who are currently subject to adult remand provisions) being held in custody awaiting trial and offers the opportunity for reductions among younger children too.”

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

“We have a more balanced and sensible system of youth justice than was in place in the middle of the last decade. In the longer term, there is a challenge to enshrine the progress that has been made in legislative change. Introducing more rigorous statutory criteria for custody or raising the age at which children can be imprisoned or even prosecuted would cement the achievements already in place.”

Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“The surest way to build up an unmanageably large adult prison population is to lock up children and young people. Reducing child custody and reducing youth crime are successes that both the former Labour government and the Coalition can be proud of.”