I would give up... locking up children

Paul Gavin
Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Britain is now the prison capital of Europe sending more people to prison than any other western European country. At the end of August 2013 there were 1,239 children (under-18s) in custody. While this figure represents a significant reduction in the number of under 18s in prison from five years ago – 59 per cent according to the Prison Reform Trust – it is still an unacceptable statistic.

There are several reasons why I would advocate abolishing the use of imprisonment for children.  First of all prison is not a place for children. Although some children do commit some terrible crimes we must ask ourselves how are we as a society protecting ourselves from this.


On the one hand we can lock children up and this will make us feel a little more secure. However, prison is an environment which can be very damaging to the most hardened of people, so imagine how it can affect a child. Concerns over personal safety, bullying, racism, insulting comments, boredom, insufficient health and psychiatric care, self-harming and suicide are only some of the characteristics of many young offender institutions in England and Wales.

Research published by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (pdf) showed that 31 per cent of young men and 22 per cent of young women felt unsafe during their time in a Young Offender Institution. Victimisation was also an issue with 24 per cent of young men and 18 per cent of young women reporting that they had been victimised by one person or a group of people while at the establishments. Twenty three per cent of male respondents and 20 per cent of female respondents claimed to have been victimised by members of staff. 

Locking up children has many damaging affects which means children will leave prison angrier, more damaged, more alienated, more expert in the ways of crime, and more likely to commit more serious offences.

Failings of the penal custody

This leads to the second reason why I would abolish imprisonment for children – it does absolutely nothing to address recidivism upon release. In fact there is considerable evidence (pdf) to suggest that for many children incarceration will increases the risk of them reoffending. This has been recognised by the Home Office which has stated that ‘the failings of penal custody to prevent children from re-offending are well illustrated by analyses of re-conviction rates that relate to the proportion of prisoners discharged from prison who are convicted on a further occasion within a given period (usually two years)’ .

High costs

Finally, there is a massive cost attached to locking up children. For the financial year 2010/11 the budget for the Youth Justice Board was £452 million. Fifty nine per cent of overall expenditure was spent on secure accommodation (£268.9 million). Other areas included crime prevention (£36.2 million), supervision and surveillance (£33.3 million) and resettlement and substance misuse (£15.1 million).
However, the expenditure of the Youth Justice Board is only one side of the story. Further costs include the public expense incurred in processing children through the courts and imposing penal remands and/or custodial sentences. The National Audit Office estimates that the true figure is much higher than the Youth Justice Boards budget alone, stating that ‘the youth justice system spends some £800 million annually on dealing with youth crime’.

The National Audit Office also provides a breakdown of the individual costs associated with imprisonment in the youth justice system. It costs £215,000 per place per year in a Local Authority Secure Children’s Home; an average of £60,000 in a Young Offender Institution; and £160,000 in a Secure Training Centre.

The additional costs of imprisonment, such as exclusion from the labour market as well as a disconnection from the education system, amount to at least an additional £40,000 per year, per individual sentenced. Perhaps this financial cost would be acceptable if the imprisonment of children was having a positive effect in areas such as rehabilitation and reducing recidivism rates. However, this is not the case and according to the New Economics Foundation, ‘despite the massive resources that prisons require, they have many damaging effects on the lives of children who are locked up.’

Restorative justice

So there you have it – three reasons why I would give up locking up children. But then what about those children who commit crimes? Well this is also a concern. Restorative justice has proved to be an effective means of sanction without the excessive cost or damaging effects of imprisonment. It has been shown to have a positive impact on reoffending rates, as well as high satisfaction rates from those involved in the process.

It is my own personal view that if the government chose to invest that £800 million spent on the youth justice system in education for those children most at risk, for sports facilities and after school clubs in those communities which have been left behind, and if government felt that prevention is better than cure and tried to really deal with the social and environmental issues which lead to criminality, it might be money much better spent than simply  building more prison spaces and not confronting the problems which result in them being filled.

This post is based on a longer article Paul Gavin wrote for the Irish Journal for Applied Social Studies.