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Monday 23 April 2018
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Public says lock up fewer children

Nearly two thirds of the public do not want to see children locked up behind bars until at least the age of 12, rising to 14 for young people convicted of a non-violent crime, according to an exclusive You Gov poll commissioned by the Prison Reform Trust’s Out of Trouble campaign.


Children as young as 10 can be imprisoned for committing a violent crime in England and Wales, and 12 for a crime that is non-violent.


The poll supports the findings of a major new research report by Out of Trouble profiling around 6,000 young people in custody. Punishing Disadvantage, written by Dr Jessica Jacobson, Professor Mike Hough and colleagues at the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, highlights the damaged and disadvantaged backgrounds of the majority of young people in custody and the high proportion of children imprisoned for non-violent and less serious offences.


For the poll, You Gov questioned 2,089 members of the public on their attitudes to imprisoning children and the most effective ways of preventing young people from reoffending. The poll reveals:


  • Nearly two-thirds (62%) of the public do not support the current minimum age of imprisonment (10) in England and Wales and think it should be at least 12


  • Nearly two thirds (63%) think the current minimum age of imprisonment for non-violent crime (12) is too low and should be at least 14


  • Better supervision by parents, treatment to tackle drug addiction, treatment to tackle binge drinking and better mental health care are all rated much more effective than a prison sentence at preventing young offenders from returning to crime.


Despite public support for locking up fewer young people, the UK is readier to send children to prison, and to send children to prison at an earlier age, than most other European countries. In 2009/2010, the average under 18 secure population in England and Wales was 2,444. In June there were 2173 under 18 year olds in custody, of which 28% were on remand.


Punishing Disadvantage set out to find out who these children were, and why and how they came to be in custody. The report is based on a census of all children who received custodial sentences or remands in the second half of 2008, approximately 6,000 in total, along with a more detailed examination of the backgrounds of 300 of these children.


The findings reveal the multiple layers of complex disadvantage that characterise the backgrounds of the majority of young people in custody:


  • At least three quarters of the sample had absent fathers, and a third absent mothers

  • Half lived in a deprived household and/or unsuitable accommodation

  • Just under half had runaway or absconded at some point in their lives

  • More than a quarter had witnessed domestic violence

  • More than a quarter had experienced local authority care

  • 20% of the sample is known to have harmed themselves; 11% to have attempted suicide

  • 12% were known to have lost a parent or sibling through bereavement


The report also highlights the high proportion of children imprisoned for non-violent and non-serious offences, and the growth in imprisonment of young people for ‘technical’ reasons, such as failing to turn up for supervision appointments or breaking the conditions of an asbo:

  • Three fifths of the sample were convicted of offences that would usually result in non-custodial sentences

  • Half of the children were imprisoned for crimes that were non-violent

  • Just over one-third were imprisoned for offences that were both less serious and non-violent

  • Around a fifth had been imprisoned for breaching conditions of community sentences, of asbos, of licences following earlier release from custody or for failing to surrender to bail


The authors highlight the persistence of a punitive approach to youth justice in the UK underpinned by a political rhetoric on youth crime that has reinforced public anxiety about reoffending and anti-social behaviour. However, with the government’s ongoing sentencing review and commitment to a ‘rehabilitation revolution’, the current times present valuable opportunities for reform of the youth justice system and the development of a more progressive approach to offending by children.


The detailed recommendations contained in the report are underpinned by three principles:

  • If offending by children is to be effectively tackled, the welfare needs of these children must be addressed

  • Deterrence is ineffective when dealing with children whose life to-date has been characterised by abuse and punishment. The lessons they learn will not be those the state intends

  • The best way to reduce the use of imprisonment is to lengthen the road to the prison gates.


Penelope Gibbs, director of Out Of Trouble, said:


This report shows definitively that children and young people are being doubly punished. First, by having traumatic childhoods. Then, by being locked up, often for not very serious crimes. Prison is often seen as a deterrent, but for these young people it isn't. It is just the last in a long series of bad experiences in which family and state have failed to protect them from harm.


Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:


The findings of this uniquely comprehensive study will give all of us cause for concern and should reinforce the coalition government's determination to intervene early, support families and get children out of trouble.


Astrid Bonfield, chief executive from The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund (supporters of Out of Trouble), said:


This study, which explores how and why children enter custody, is the first of its kind for 25 years and makes an important contribution to our understanding of young offenders. Its findings confirm that children who enter the criminal justice system have previously experienced multiple disadvantages.  It is therefore crucial that we develop a welfare-based approach to offending by vulnerable children, who deserve fair treatment and better futures. This study demonstrates that the inappropriate use of custody needs to be reduced and that more progressive policies towards misbehaviour and offending by children must be introduced. 



1.   An embargoed copy of Punishing Disadvantage is available at:


2.   A less serious offence is defined as an offence that would usually receive a non-custodial penalty.


3.   On 30 June 2010, the Scottish Parliament passed the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Bill, which raised the age at which a child can be prosecuted in adult criminal courts from eight to 12. Royal Assent was received on 6 August 2010. The full text of the Criminal Justice and Licensing (Scotland) Act 2010  is available at:


4.   YouGov polled 2,089 GB adults on 5 - 6 September 2010.


5.   The Prison Reform Trust aims to create a just, humane and effective penal system. We do this by inquiring into the workings of the system; informing prisoners, staff and the wider public; and by influencing parliament, government, and officials towards reform. For the last three years the Prison Reform Trust has been running Out of Trouble ( ), a programme whose aim is to reduce the number of children and young people imprisoned across the UK. This programme is supported by The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund over five years.


6.   The Institute for Criminal Policy Research carries out multidisciplinary research into crime and the criminal justice system. We produce work which is independent, and objective and of the highest technical quality. Our key audiences are managers and practitioners within the criminal justice system, other professionals working with offenders, and politicians and their advisors. Our research approaches incorporate both quantitative and qualitative methods.


7.   The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund continues the Princess’ humanitarian work in the UK and overseas. By giving grants to organisations, championing charitable causes, advocacy, campaigning and awareness raising, the Fund works to secure sustainable improvements in the lives of the most disadvantaged people in the UK and around the world.

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Prison Reform Trust