Children ‘don’t belong in jail’

7 Sep 12
Frances Done

Next year, local authorities will take over financial responsibility for children on remand. This is a good move as councils should be able to support the children and help keep them out of custody

This month a consultation paper is being issued to local authorities on their new responsibilities for the costs of children remanded in custody and the associated budget transfer.

This is something we at the Youth Justice Board have been pushing for since 2009 as we believe that it is the package of child support provided by councils that strongly influences court decisions.

For example, if children appear in court for an initial hearing without a suitable place to live in, the magistrate is much more likely to remand them in custody than if the local authority has a well-worked out plan for accommodating and supporting the children while on remand.

It makes sense for local authorities to be financially responsible for children and for this to influence efforts to ensure they are kept out of custody wherever possible. Already we are seeing much greater attention being paid by youth offending services and children’s services to children on the cusp of a custodial sentence.

Custody should be reserved for those for whom a robust community sentence is not appropriate, due to the severity of their offence or the risk they pose to the community.
So I welcome the new legal framework that will try to ensure local children’s services and wider partners, including health services, always act in the child’s best interests.

Anticipating the forthcoming changes, we are working with local youth offending teams to make sure that we have robust data on the use of secure remand by each local authority.

I am hoping that local authorities will respond to the consultation paper and will gear up now for the responsibilities coming their way. From April next year, when the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 takes effect, this transfer from national to local government budgets will affect directors of finance and Cabinet members for finance when the costs appear for the first time on council books.

Remands to custody costs range from £212,000 per year for a child in a secure children’s home to £60,000 for a young person in a Young Offender Institution. We have been discussing the impact of the Act with the Local Government Association, chief executives and directors of children’s services for some time as we were sure that they, alongside finance directors, would want to be well versed ahead of implementation.

This is a significant change in responsibility, but one that helps all of us in the youth justice sector who believe the numbers of children remanded in custody should and can be reduced.

Some 350 young people a day are remanded in custody in England and Wales. In 2010/11, remanded young people accounted for 26% of the total numbers in custody, but 61% of those held on remand were either subsequently found not guilty or were not ultimately sentenced to custody.

Since the Youth Justice Board was given responsibility for commissioning the custodial estate for children aged under 18 in 2000, the numbers in custody have declined. The latest figures, for May 2012, show some 1,744 sentenced and remanded young people held in secure units in England and Wales, which represents a 38% drop since 2000.

We will continue to place young people in custody when the court decides this should be done and commission the secure estate for young people, but we will be involving local government much more in planning for the future of custodial provision.

Although the government has not yet made a decision about transferring the full custody budget (for sentenced young people as well as those on remand) to local authorities, this is a logical step in the future development of youth justice. It is one that I would personally welcome.

Right now though, our work and dialogue is with all those senior council officers and lead members to make sure that everyone is aware of the significance of the changes taking place next April.

Our shared concern is always in looking after the interests of those young people who need sustained support to turn their lives around.

Frances Done is chair of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales. This article first appeared in the September issue of Public Finance

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