Youth Justice: Action Plan 2017 onwards
Young Defendants’ Working Group – Action Plan 2017
It has always been a principle adopted by the Michael Sieff Foundation that the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales, currently ten years, is too low. A letter cosigned by 32 national organisations was published in The Times in 2010 urging the age of criminal responsibility be raised substantially from 10 years old in line with most other countries. (See the text see: the correspondence page.) Regrettably political and media opposition persists. We have therefore focused on other more achievable objectives.
In 2012 the Foundation established a new Action Plan for the Young Defendants’ Working Group, looking to achieve better recognition of the statutory requirements to consider the welfare of young defendants and reduce offending; a reduction in the number of young people in custody; and better support, information and services available to young defendants, their families and carers.
A seminar in January 2013 led to the setting up of a Parliamentarians’ Inquiry in November 2013 chaired by Lord Carlile, which the Foundation co-sponsored with the National Children’s Bureau. The report into the operation and effectiveness of the youth justice system was published in June 2014 and paved the way for changes consistent with the Action Plan. The Foundation has continuously promoted implementation of the recommendations of the Carlile report. Considerable progress has been made. The Foundation has persisted in seeking extension of the powers of the Youth Court. More serious crimes are now often tried in that venue, which is patently more appropriate than the Crown Court. Further consideration is still required and a seminar is planned for February 2018.
Criminal records imposed during childhood all too easily blight the future life of a child. The Foundation has supported the Standing Committee on Youth Justice on their initiative to bring about radical change in this area.
The inadequacy of legal representation of young people has been well evidenced and we have supported the Bar Standards Board and the Inns of Court College of Advocacy on their work to achieve improved advocacy competence.
Another of the recommendations which the Foundation has sought to promote is that of problem solving courts. The Centre for Justice Innovation is now being funded by the Nuffield Foundation to research feasibility projects. We continue to support this initiative. To achieve real success a full national project will require senior judicial approval. The wheels grind slowly.
Following the publication of the Carlile Inquiry Report the Ministry of Justice established a Review conducted by Charlie Taylor which reported in 2016. Its Terms of Reference included consideration of the nature and characteristics of offending by young people aged 10-17 and the arrangements in place to prevent it; and how effectively the youth justice system and its partners operate in responding to offending by children and young people, preventing further offending, protecting the public and repairing harm to victims and communities, and rehabilitating young offenders. Subsequently he has been appointed as Chief Executive of the Youth Justice Board, so we remain positive that his proposals, many of which followed the principles proposed by the Carlile Inquiry Report, will ultimately be implemented.
For our previous Action Plan from 2012 to 2017 see the page: Young Defendants’ Working Group – Action Plan 2012
Children held on remand
Transform Justice report, (and Guardian article), authored by Penelope Gibbs published in December 2018 covering many of the remand issues that were highlighted in the Carlile Report.
Path of little resistance: is pre-trial detention of children really a last resort?
By Penelope Gibbs and Fionnuala Ratcliffe
Transform Justice Report
December 23, 2018
Unnecessary short sharp shock or genuine last resort? The overuse of remand for children
Is the short, sharp shock of child remand really necessary? A report from Transform Justice suggests not. It is stressful for any child to be imprisoned, but even more so if they are maintaining their innocence of the crime of which they are accused. Whereas a child who is sentenced to prison has some preparation, a child remanded pre-trial is catapulted from police custody to court, and from court to custody. No wonder prison inspectors found that boys on remand were more likely to feel unsafe than those who have been sentenced.
In October 2018, a sixteen year old boy William Lindsay committed suicide in a Scottish prison, YOI Polmont. He was a troubled and occasionally troublesome child who had spent most of his life in care. He had not been convicted but was charged with possessing a knife – a knife which he had taken into the police station and put on the counter. Why such a child was remanded at all is a mystery, more mysterious was his imprisonment in a child prison. Apparently the authorities tried and failed to find a place in a secure children’s home, so resorted to Polmont Young Offenders’ Institution. William, who was known to have fragile mental health, only lasted 48 hours behind bars before taking his own life. A debate in the Scottish parliament focused on where William was imprisoned, but not whether detention was really necessary.
Transform Justice’s work on the use of pre-trial detention for children in England & Wales suggests that the tragedy of William Lindsay could happen here, and that it’s the decision to imprison which needs scrutiny. Most of the children who are detained pre-trial in England and Wales are either acquitted or get a non-custodial sentence. Most are imprisoned on remand for less than three weeks and last year 180 children were remanded to custody for 7 days or less. It looks as if we are warehousing children in prison while we better assess the risk they pose, and then deciding that the original risk assessment was over-cautious.
The problems start in the police station where too many children are detained in police cells overnight. Any child detained overnight then has to be taken to court the next working day and, if pleading not guilty, is released on bail, subject to local authority supervision in the community, or imprisoned on remand. The speed of the process means that the defence and the youth offending team don’t have enough time to gather information about the child and prepare a bail package – which might reassure the prosecution and the bench. Faced with little information and huge pressure to get through cases quickly, magistrates err on the side of caution and tend to agree with most prosecution recommendations to refuse bail.
Transform Justice’s report calls for a different, more pragmatic approach. Prison is a dead end which should be a last resort for children. If all those involved in the decision to remand children focused on the genuine risk posed by the child in the community (in most cases low if well supervised) versus the risk of a short, sharp, shock in prison, we could reduce the number remanded by half or more. And every time we imprison a child, seemingly for our convenience, its worth remembering that a short period of imprisonment is always traumatic and never beneficial.