Page last updated at 09:26 GMT, Monday, 22 September 2008 10:26 UK

Child custody numbers 'too high'

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Barnardo's say locking up young people is expensive and ineffective

An increasing number of children have been locked up in England and Wales over the past decade, according to the charity Barnardo's.

There was a five-fold surge in the use of custody for 10 to 14-year-olds from 1996-2006, said the charity.

This is despite no significant increase in serious crime. Barnardo's is calling for sentencing policy to be overhauled.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said just three in 100 young people convicted of offences receive custodial sentences.

A spokesman added that custodial sentences for under 14s were a last resort.

Preventative work

Before 1994, under 15s in England and Wales could be sentenced to custody only if they had committed serious or violent offences such as rape, assault or burglary.

But successive legal changes have made it easier for children to be locked up, usually in secure training centres or secure children's homes, for driving or drunk and disorderly offences, for example.

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They can also be given custodial sentences for breaching behavioural orders.

Barnardo's said although children aged 10 and 11 can still only be sentenced to custody for "grave crimes", 12 to 14-year-olds are increasingly being locked up for less serious offences.

The charity said the 550% rise in the use of custody for children had created an "expensive and ineffective" criminal justice strategy, and had resulted in children "being written off" by the age of 12.

Its study found that if 10 to 14-year-olds were sentenced to custody only for "grave crimes" or violent offences, the number locked up in 2006 would have been cut from 572 to just 104.

That study, Locking up or giving up?, is based mostly on data from 1996-2006.

The report said official figures showed only 7% of the 844 custodial sentences passed on 10 to 14-year-olds last year were for very serious crimes.

The charity says the number of children and young people imprisoned in England and Wales is the third highest in Europe, behind only the Russian Federation and the Ukraine.

According to the report, holding a child in custody for a year can cost as much as 185,780 - the same as six years' schooling at Eton College.

Barnardo's said 80% of children in custody had been excluded from school and locking them up was ineffective - 78% of 10 to 14-year-olds will re-offend within 12 months of being released.

Unjustifiable custody

Martin Narey, Barnardo's chief executive, and former director general of the Prison Service, called for a "drastic reduction" in the use of custody for very young children.

It is often the most vulnerable young people in society who end up in the criminal justice system
Martin Narey
Barnardo's chief executive

"Barnardo's are not naive: we recognise that children committing grave crimes need to be incarcerated," he said.

"But the explosion in the use of custody for very young children when youth offending has not been growing is inexplicable, unjustifiable and unnecessary.

"It is often the most vulnerable young people in society who end up in the criminal justice system, and despite this only 5% of the 445m spent by the Youth Justice Board (YJB) was invested in preventative work."

Barnardo's wants a change in sentencing thresholds so that a child under 15 cannot be sent to custody unless they have committed grave or violent crimes. It claims this would save the government 27.5 million a year.

It also wants local authorities to carry the full costs for those children sentenced to custody.

It says there is currently a strong disincentive for councils to invest in preventative services because the YJB meets the costs of custodial sentences.

Mr Narey is set to debate the issue with the Justice Secretary Jack Straw at the Labour Conference in Manchester.

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