The number of young people and children in custody in England and Wales reached a record high last week. Facilities for imprisoning young people are almost entirely full.
According to the Youth Justice Board, which oversees the youth justice system in England and Wales, over 3,350 children and young people are currently being held in young offenders institutions, privately run secure training centres or secure children’s homes.
Increasing numbers of children and young people are being locked up for minor offences or for breaching supervision orders.
The number of 15 to 17 year olds in custody has more than doubled in the last ten years.
The increasing use of the criminal justice system to deal with what are health or social problems has also led to hundreds of young people with addictions or mental health problems being locked up.
A report in 2000 found that 85 percent of 16 to 25 year olds in custody suffer from some form of mental health problem.
The same report found that over half report drug dependency in the year before imprisonment.
Locking up more young people seriously affects the conditions inside and increases the risk of self-harm or suicide. The overcrowding is leading to an increase in forced cell sharing - “doubling up”.
This practice was condemned by the report earlier this year into the death of Zahid Mubarak at Feltham young offender institution in 2000.
It is also leading to more young people being locked up further from home, making it difficult for them to receive visits and support.
At the end of July 2004, more than a third of children in prison were held over 50 miles from their home town, which is against government guidelines.
Practically every report into youth crime calls for a shift towards alternatives to custody, yet the government is caught up in the logic of trying to prove that they are tough on crime. For it, tough means prison.
In contrast, Rob Allen, director of the International Centre for Prison Studies, has called for a shift in the youth justice policy from punishment to problem solving.
He calls for a phasing out of custody for 15 and 16 year olds, and the raising of the age of criminal responsibility from ten to 14 years old.
Many mainstream figures have called for a complete change in policy.
Sir Albert Aynsley-Green, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said, “Custody is not effective in preventing crime. It is costly and does enormous damage to children who are, for the most part, already extremely vulnerable.
“Shutting children away in prison sends a message that we are giving up on them. If progress is to be made, we need to tackle the root causes of crime.”