Youth justice – UK Government assessment
The number of children in custody has continued to decrease in recent years, though the reduction in numbers has slowed since 2016. 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.
- In England and Wales, the minimum age of criminal responsibility remains 10, which is significantly lower than most European countries and is inconsistent with international human rights standards, which call for a minimum age of 14.
- Though the number of children in custody has fallen over the last decade, rates have slowed significantly since 2016 and there are concerns that custody is still not used as a last resort, in line with UN recommendations.
- Black children, and boys, are over-represented in custody. The overall decrease in the custodial population was largely driven by a reduction in the number of White children in custody, with Black children representing 28% of the custodial population by 2020, an increase of 7% since 2016.
- Many children in custody spend limited time out of their cells. This time has further decreased due to coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions, which have meant widespread use of prolonged solitary confinement, for up to 22 hours a day, contrary to human rights standards.
- Despite legislation to release people from custody during the pandemic, by March 2021, no children had been released under the scheme. The framework for opening up prisons made almost no reference to the specific needs of young people.
- COVID-19 has led to changes including a lack of family contact, limited education and less independent scrutiny. There are concerns about the impact on children, including on their mental health.
- Assault rates in youth custody have increased in recent years. Bullying is common and many children do not feel safe, particularly those with disabilities and children from traveller communities. Self-harm rates are high, especially for girls, with overall rates increasing between 2016 and 2020.
- Use of force in custody is high, with rates increasing in recent years. A recent 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 UN.
- There are concerns that remand for children is over-used, and rates have risen since 2017. Approximately one-third of children in custody are held on remand, but two-thirds of these do not receive a custodial sentence.
- 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, having a significant impact on their future.
- In 2020, the Cabinet Office published its Annual Report on Major Projects and assigned the Government’s youth justice reform programme an Amber/Red status, meaning that successful delivery of the project is in doubt.
- Despite committing to build two secure schools following the Taylor Review, progress has been limited and the first school isn’t planned to open until 2022. Concerns remain about the decision to trial this at Medway Secure Training Centre, with its problematic history and prison-like dimensions.
Read more about the UK Government’s actions on youth justice.