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Children’s Commissioner: The youth justice system is failing too many children – it’s time for a complete overhaul

4 min read

“The youth justice system should be there to rehabilitate offenders, but it is failing miserably – 76 % of children who serve custodial sentences go on to reoffend” writes Anne Longfield, Children's Commissioner for England

The first time I saw a cell that held young offenders in isolation it struck me that this completely bare, tiny room, with nothing in it but a sink, a bed and a tatty paperback book was a space you wouldn’t leave a dog in for 22 hours, never mind a teenage boy with mental health problems and special educational needs. Yet these are the cells some young offenders are spending days or even weeks – places where there is often no rehabilitation or education, and where much of the time is spent banging cell doors for attention, shouting at prison officers or fellow inmates from behind a locked door or sleeping.

Not surprisingly, children themselves tell us that segregation can bring on feelings of stress, apathy, anxiety, anger, depression and hopelessness.

Of course there will always be times when it is in a child’s best interest to be separated, either because they pose a risk to others or they need protection. But last month’s Chief Inspector of Prisons’ grim report urging a major overhaul of the way children in Young Offender Institutions are kept in isolation is right. It comes 18 months after my own report calling for better oversight over the use of separation, and for ministerial permission to be sought for the use of isolation lasting longer than 72 hours.

At the moment, a child can be separated for 21 days before there is any external oversight at all, and last year every single one of the 346 requests to extend separation beyond 21 days was approved.

Anyone working in or observing conditions in YOIs knows the problem goes much wider too. Even those who are not in isolation are often spending far too much time locked up in their cell, particularly at weekends when staff numbers are lower.

During a recent YOI visit, one young inmate told us that he sometimes spends as little as half an hour a day out of his cell on Saturdays and Sundays. Others told us that the most exercise they had during a weekend day was 20 minutes in a small, cold exercise yard. We met children who were desperate to play Uno with us, just so they would get ten more minutes outside their cell. Sadly even this was refused.

While some YOIs are making progress in increasing time out of cells, it is an ingrained systemic problem. Running a staff rota based primarily on week days in prisons is not putting children’s welfare first. Government policy does already prohibit the use of separation as a form of punishment, and explicitly forbids the use of solitary confinement against children. Yet this is not the experience of children who are separated – 58% say segregation was used as punishment and we know many children are locked up without meaningful human contact for 22 hours a day. I want ministers to personally sign off any solitary confinement. That’s how important this is.

'The Government must now take the lead.'

The lack of data on the practice allows harm to continue. I want to see the figures for all segregations across the youth estate collected centrally and included in Youth Justice Statistics, so the use of segregation is more closely monitored within the youth estate, and we have a system that is focused on rehabilitation and turning around lives. It is extremely worrying that the practice is increasing at the same time as the number of young people in the youth justice estate has fallen to the size of a comprehensive school.

The youth justice system should be there to rehabilitate offenders, but it is failing miserably – 76 % of children who serve custodial sentences go on to reoffend. The problem is YOIs were designed for adults and retrofitted for children and are not set-up to deal with the needs of vulnerable children.

The Government must now take the lead. There must be a complete overhaul with children’s needs at its core so that we can improve the dismal outcomes for children in custody and drive down the high social cost of reoffending. The alternative is a system where we continue to spend billions warehousing young offenders and using isolation as punishment, and where far too many young people leave YOIs only to fall back into a life of serious crime and violence.

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