Plea to reduce child inmates follows a
spate of jail suicides
Young offenders at serious risk of harming themselves
are being locked up although they are too vulnerable for life behind
bars, the head of the Youth Justice Board (YJB) admitted yesterday.
Following a spate of suicides among children in custody in recent years
and fears that the number of teenagers behind bars could be about to
rise, Rod Morgan delivered a grim warning of the pressures faced by the
youth justice system. In an interview with The Independent, he appealed
to the courts to jail fewer youngsters and called for extra resources to
be found for children with severe mental health problems. Twenty-seven
children have died in custody since 1990, including two last year,
prompting the United Nations to accuse Britain of failing to respect the
human rights of young offenders. Professor Morgan said the YJB was
responsible for “some of the most traumatised kids in our society”,
acknowledging it was handling children who should be sectioned under the
Mental Health Act. He said: “There are young people in the system who
are not appropriately placed and are vulnerable — some of them should be
in mental health facilities.” The problem was caused by the “grave
shortage” of secure accommodation for children with severe mental health
needs and a tendency for other public services to wash their hands of
them, he said.
Professor Morgan, a former chief inspector of probation, said efforts
were being made to house young offenders in “smaller, child-centred
units” and to improve accommodation and staffing standards. But he said:
“My main task, and the main concern of my board, is working as hard as
we can to persuade the courts there are viable alternatives to the use
of custody, so we can have fewer children in custody and do a better job
With about 2,700 children locked up, Britain has among
the highest incarceration rates for young offenders in western Europe.
Progress at reducing the numbers has stalled in the past 12 months.
Professor Morgan expressed alarm over a “huge increase” in the number of
children brought before courts under the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act,
which requires automatic sentences for repeat offenders. He said
children were finding themselves criminalised for minor offences. He
also raised fears over the impact of antisocial behaviour orders (Asbos),
under which youngsters who breach the orders can be jailed, on the
numbers in custody. “We need to ensure ... we go for the Asbos not as a
first resort, but as a last resort,” he added.
11 January 2005