The Tragedy of Incarcerated Children
The charity Barnardo’s has recently highlighted the issue of incarcerated young offenders, insisting that at any given time Britain has 400+ children aged between 12 and 14 locked up, a situation described by The Independent as ‘inhumane and, on all the evidence, counter-productive.’ In addition, Barnardo’s allege that at least 160 young people were wrongly imprisoned in 2007. They claim that this ‘tragedy’ is occurring because of a misinterpretation of the law. In essence ‘[t]he law specifically states that children aged 14 and under should not be locked up unless they have committed a grave offence or have committed a serious offence and are deemed to be a persistent offender’. Unfortunately, this does not appear to happen in practice, instead it would seem that there is a ratchetting up of punishment, leading to children being imprisoned for relatively trivial offences.
Although, most would agree that prison is necessary for violent criminals, it is difficult to imagine what the long term result of locking children up will be. Looking at the ongoing penal crisis and the continual problem of revolving doors, it seems likely that such a policy will simply feed the adult prisons of the future.
The long-term result of more children in prison? More adults in prison.
England and Wales imprison more children than any other country in Western Europe and the effects of this are truly staggering. Some 76% of children in prison will reoffend within a year. Around 82% of the boys we imprison will be reconvicted within 24 months. We at the Howard League for Penal Reform believe that prison is no place for children: it isn’t safe; it isn’t suitable; it doesn’t work.
Click on http://www.howardleague.org/gusu/ to find out more.
Incarcerating children is such an important topic. Has there been any debate about “reforming” the children? This would be another purpose of prisons (you mention keeping society safe from dangerous persons).
Thanks for your comment, Keri. If we rely on British politicians and the media with their interpretation (or reflection?) of public opinion, there seems to be very little debate, or even interest in ideas of rehabilitation. Instead, what we tend to see are very strong punitive feelings toward criminal behaviour. So, rather than focusing on strategies to improve desistance from crime for children (and indeed, adults), there appears to be a distinct attitude toward locking people up first, and then – perhaps – talking about rehabilitation after they have been punished. Despite the ever increasing body of research – beginning much the same time as the creation of the prison – which strongly maintains that prison does not work, it still seems to be the primary and favourite punishment of many.
Thank you for your comment. It is frightening to consider how long the debate about child prisoners has been ongoing. Unfortunately, the situation is still one that John Howard would recognise, and without a doubt deplore. Until we decide as a society what purpose we want prison to serve, I feel that we will continue to go around in circles. Regrettably, unless we can move away from the moral panics surrounding both crime and young people, it is hard to see how any informed evidence based discourse can take place. This is not to denigrate the excellent work carried out by organisations such as the Howard League for Penal Reform, Nacro, Amnesty International and so on. Only by continually raising these important issues is there any hope of moving away from the threat of incarceration becoming – as it has in some parts of America – a norm of socialisation.