Youth justice – UK Government assessment
There have been legal or policy changes to improve human rights protections but very limited evidence of sustained improvements in the enjoyment of human rights on this issue
We welcome the reduction in the number of children in custody in recent years, a trend that accelerated following the outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19). For those in the youth justice system, the use of force, solitary confinement, violence and self-harm are commonplace. The minimum age of criminal responsibility remains inconsistent with international standards. Children from ethnic minorities are over-represented in custody; the use of pain-inducing restraint continues; and the use of remand has increased.
- Provisions in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 may help prevent the inappropriate use of custodial remand. However, the Act also includes measures that may result in children convicted of certain offences spending more time in custody.
- There are concerns that the introduction of online and written plea procedures for child defendants, through the Judicial Review and Courts Act 2022, will undermine their right to a fair trial.
- Inspectors raised serious concerns about Oakhill Secure Training Centre in October 2021. Levels of the use of force were very high, including incidents in which force on children was not justified.
- In England and Wales, the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 10 years old. This is inconsistent with international human rights standards, which call for a minimum age of 14.
- In 2020/21, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of children in custody fell to its lowest level in 20 years, continuing a downward trend. It has not increased meaningfully during 2021/22.
- Black children and boys are over-represented in custody. Black children represented 29% of the custodial population in 2020/21. The proportion of children in custody who are Black has increased over the last 10 years.
- Many children in custody spend limited time out of their cells. Time out of cells varies widely by institution, with some children only spending four hours out of their cell on weekdays and two hours at weekends. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there was widespread use of prolonged solitary confinement, in some cases for up to 22 hours a day.
- Assault rates in youth custody have increased in recent years, but decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, self-harm rates reduced in 2020/21, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, data shows that rates increased for girls specifically and remain extremely high compared with boys.
- Use of force in custody is high and rates have increased in recent years, but reduced in 2020/21 in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. A 2019 review identified widespread overuse of restraint. This can include pain-inducing techniques, which the UK Government has failed to ban despite calls to do so by the United Nations (UN).
- There are concerns that custody is overused and not treated as a last resort for children in line with UN recommendations. In 2020/21, the average number of children held on remand accounted for 40% of all children in youth custody.
- New legislation to reform the criminal records system is welcome. However, the regime for disclosure of youth criminal records remains similar to the regime used for adults. Crimes committed by children can stay on their criminal record for life and have a significant impact on their future.
- Despite the UK Government’s commitment to build two secure schools in response to the 2016 Taylor Review, progress has been slow. The first school was planned to open in 2022 but construction work only began in July 2022.
Read more about the UK Government’s actions on youth justice.