Stop ‘warehousing’ children in custody, ministers told

Posted: 21st April 2023

Ministers must stop “warehousing” children in custody, says the Children’s Commissioner, as figures revealed record numbers are being detained on remand.

Dame Rachel de Souza said young offenders and suspects must be treated as children “first and foremost”, not as criminals who faced being denied regular contacts with their family, access to education and a safe rather than violent environment.

Her comments come as figures, obtained under Freedom of Information laws, showed children on remand now account for 49 per cent of young people in custody, the highest on record and three times the rate among the adult population.

Only a quarter of those children will end up with a custodial sentence, with the remaining 73 per cent acquitted of any crimes or handed community service, according to the figures obtained by the charity Transform Justice. Those in custody are disproportionately black, accounting for six in 10 of those on remand.

Dame Rachel warned that the warehousing of children in custody with minimal contact with their families, little time out of their cells – sometimes just 30 minutes a day at weekends – and sparse access to education and enriching activities, could be highly damaging and only increase the risk of further offending.

“While there are some positive examples of families being supported to visit their children in custody, and visits or calls being prioritised, this remains unacceptably inconsistent across the youth estate,” said Dame Rachel.

“Once again, we see a group of children – mostly boys, many of them black, and overwhelmingly with special educational needs or having missed school – left without the chance to maintain the positive family relationships that sustain them, with minimal opportunities for enriching activities or education.

“One third of them will go on to reoffend. Children must be treated, first and foremost, as children – not as criminals, regardless of the circumstances that led them to being in custody.

“The risk of not doing this will have an impact throughout the lifetime of this cohort of boys, hardened from the point at which they enter custody and with less trust in those whose job it is to protect them.

“We must match the efforts in recent years to reduce the numbers of children in custody with a dedicated programme of reform.”

‘Palpable tension and paranoia’

The commissioner’s research, covering Oct-Nov 2022, found almost half of all children in custody (44 per cent) did not receive an in-person visit and 83 per cent did not receive a video call.

The children were also often living in environments of “palpable tension and paranoia”, because of the numbers of young people with gang links. “Many live in a state of ‘constant vigilance’ as boredom and frustration from a lack of purposeful activity or interactions with others result in fights,” it said.

More than 1,000 children aged under 18 were remanded into custody last year after being charged and refused police bail despite pledges by ministers to reduce the use of child detention, according to data obtained by Transform Justice.

Penelope Gibbs, director of Transform Justice, said: “Children who plead non-guilty are being imprisoned totally unnecessarily. Three quarters of children we lock up on remand do not go on to get a custodial sentence. And black boys are the most likely to be warehoused in prison.

“We hope the Government’s reforms to the law on child remand will stop this terrible over-use of imprisonment, but there are no signs yet that practice has changed.”

The Ministry of Justice said: “The number of children in custody has fallen by 77 per cent in the last decade and we’re reviewing family contact in prisons so more children benefit from the support positive relationships can provide.

“Remand decisions are made by independent judges based on the circumstances of each case, but the new tests the courts now apply ensure that children are only put into custody when it is necessary and appropriate.”

Source: Stop ‘warehousing’ children in custody, ministers told (

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