Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Locking up children

I have come to realize more and more how very fortunate I have been in my life. I could list many instances of this good fortune, which I surely did nothing to deserve. Just one for today: I have never had the misfortune of being entangled in the criminal justice system. It is only now that I am beginning to understand more about this  monster that we - as citizens - create in an attempt to uphold the rule of law.

An excellent recent report from the New Economics Foundation is entitled Punishing Costs: How locking up children is making Britain less safe.  As of February 2010, there were 2,195 10–17-year-olds imprisoned in England and Wales. 82 per cent of 12–14-year-olds sent to prison have never committed a violent offense. These seems like shocking facts, even before we know that this is a higher rate of child imprisonment than almost any other developed country. It seems all the more shocking when we learn that child imprisonment is neither a good strategy for reducing crime in the long run, nor a cost-effective strategy.

Child imprisonment is not without rationale, of course. There are indeed benefits to incarceration of children; it dramatically reduces or eliminates their ability to commit crimes and abuse drugs for the period of their imprisonment. The problem - from a cold detached perspective - is that this approach is neither effective or efficient. A year's imprisonment costs society more than £140,000. £100,000 of this is in the direct cost of imprisonment. A minimum of £40,000 of additional costs results from all the many negative consequences of imprisonment: reduced ability to earn, disconnection from education, increased criminality upon release, and reduced connection to family and community.

There are clearly better ways to deal with young offenders, including helping them (through mental health and drug services and providing paid work) before they offend.

Why then have we as a society opted to use approaches that are both less humane and less effective than alternatives when dealing with child offenders? 

According to the NEF report, a key factor is a mechanical and systematic one: the central government bears the entire cost of prison placements while local councils are responsible for the services that might keep kids out of prison. In other words, imprisonment can seem to councils like a respite from the duties and cots of dealing with children in trouble. Imprisonment is more attractive locally because it reduces problems and costs. It's only a disaster when we see the bigger picture.

As a person who believes in the possibility for goodness in everyone, I have a profound moral objection to a criminal justice system that does not aim to reform offenders whenever possible and give them the possibility of living with dignity. I have a profound moral objection to a system that it more inclined to spend money to punish and sequester offenders than to help them avoid becoming offenders in the first place. I would have these objections even if the system were cost effective. To find that it is neither humane nor effective should outrage all of us. This is no way to treat human beings - especially children.


  1. At least the new government has agreed to end the detention of children who have committed no crime who are seeking sanctuary in this country.