Prison children should be practically exterminated and the age of crime raised from 10 to 14 years, said the child commissioner when she called for a reform of youth justice based on the Scandinavian model.
In a report, Anne Longfield said the number of children incarcerated should be reduced to the “bare minimum”, as in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland and Denmark, where all five nations put together only 13 children ages 15-17 have in jail.
In contrast, England and Wales have an average of 870 children under the age of 18 in custody at the same time – a system that Ms. Longfield says has failed because seven in ten are insulted again after they are released.
She called for a radical rethink, with more resources to stop gangs from exploiting vulnerable children and to identify children at risk of being involved in crime and divert them from crime.
This could be achieved by replacing custody with safe, Scandinavian-style schools and housing, psychological counselors in each school spotting signs of problems early, and reversing cuts in youth clubs and services to keep children out of trouble.
Ms. Longfield also recommended raising the age of criminal responsibility to 14, in line with the United Nations’ proposals to end the criminalization of children from a young age. The average age of criminal responsibility in Scandinavia is 15 years.
“For too long, ruthless criminals have been able to exploit loopholes in education and child protection systems to exploit and criminalize vulnerable children. Tackling the scourge of severe violence requires a radical change in our view of the juvenile justice system,” she said.
“There are still too many children being sent to jail, and still too many children who are doomed to fail when they leave custody because not enough is being done to find their proper place to live, or to receive treatment or education procure that they need upon publication.
“We should look at why so few children are in custody in the Scandinavian countries and raise our own expectations in order to meet them.”
Ms. Longfield said the current system failed to take early action because more than half (56 percent) of the children incarcerated were previously identified as “children in need” in need of additional government assistance and seven in ten children with a mental health problem would have.
More than eight in ten (85 percent) boys in juvenile offender facilities had previously been banned from school, but instead of staying in the mainstream sector, they were placed in approved units where they were vulnerable to gangs.
“At every stage of a child’s journey through the criminal justice system, opportunities are lost to pinpoint the root causes of violations and put the children’s wellbeing at the center of the response,” said Ms. Longfield.
“For example, when a child’s home staff calls the police about a child’s property damage instead of grounding them or docking their pocket money like a parent, or meeting a police officer who is unable to identify a vulnerability and respond to protection trigger. “
“Or when the courts took children into custody before they were even tried – last year nearly a third of children in custody were on remand, two-thirds of whom were never sentenced to imprisonment.
“Ultimately, the system doesn’t see the child first and the ‘perpetrator’, which diminishes the opportunity for real change.”
Ms. Longfield’s report said this was a particular problem with black children, who were more than four times more likely to be arrested than whites.
Despite a share of only 18 percent of the total population, children with black, Asian or ethnic minorities made up 49 percent of the total population of young people in prison.
A Justice Department spokesman said: “We have made great strides in improving the youth justice system and as a result there are 83% fewer children in it than ten years ago. Those who stay are especially vulnerable and challenging, and we focus on making sure they get the support they need to change their lives. “
“There are no plans to raise the age of criminal liability. It is set to 10 to provide flexibility in combating criminal behavior among children and allows early intervention to prevent further violations.”