“Radical reforms” are needed to the youth justice system to prevent children becoming embroiled in crime and help them turn their lives around when they have spiralled out of control, a new report has found.
The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, said that locking youngsters up is not a way to stop crime and warned that an “under-resourced and fragmented system” of child protection is letting down thousands of children before they ever set foot inside a police station.
In a new report, published on Tuesday, she called for a “Scandinavian style joined-up, child-focused system” for youngsters who need to be held in secure units.
This includes urging the Government to put more resources into preventing gangs from exploiting vulnerable children as part of a plan to cut the number of youngsters ending up in prison.
She added: “For too long, ruthless criminals have been able to exploit gaps in the education and child protection system to exploit and criminalise vulnerable children.
“We should look at why Scandinavian countries have so few children in custody and raise our own expectations to match them.
“That will mean stopping gangs from exploiting vulnerable children, identifying children at risk of getting involved in crime and diverting them away from that path, reducing the numbers of children in custody to an absolute minimum, and transforming secure care for children so that rehabilitation is at its heart.
“I believe all of this is achievable if the will is there to do it.”
The Injustice Or In Justice: Children In The Justice System report welcomed the reduction in the number of youngsters caught up in the criminal justice system, including an 83% drop in the number receiving a caution or sentence and a 73% fall in the number of children in custody over the last decade.
But it questioned why hundreds of children are still ending up in courts and prisons while there were only 13 children aged 15-17 in prison in the whole of Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland and Denmark combined in 2015.
“There are still too many children being sent to prison and still too many children who are set up to fail when they leave custody because not enough is being done to find them the right place to live or to get them the treatment or education they need on release.
“The number of children in custody in this country is only half the size of a secondary school.
“It should not be beyond us to improve our justice system so that children involved in the criminal justice system are recognised as children first.”
Ms Longfield said that opportunities are being missed at every stage of a child’s journey through the criminal justice system to get to the root causes of offending.
The system is failing to see the child first and the offender second, which is reducing the opportunity for real change, she added.
She said this is “particularly true” for black children, who are more than four times more likely to be arrested than white children.
Despite accounting for only 18% of the general population, children from BAME backgrounds now make up almost half (49%) of the entire population of youth custody, she added.
These include expanding early help services to identify issues and prevent problems from developing, raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14, and reforming the court system to make it more child-friendly and address children’s health, welfare and education needs.
There should also be an ambition to reduce the number of children in custody and the Ministry of Justice should work with the Department for Education, Youth Justice Board and others to design “evidence-based community sentences”.