The number of children in custody in England and Wales is expected to more than double by 2024 after a long decline, according to the Whitehall spending watchdog. The National Audit Office reports that the forecast is based on ‘the collective impact of recruiting 23,000 additional police officers, reversing COVID-19 court backlogs, and tougher sentencing following the passing of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Reform Bill’.
The proportion of black and ethnic minority children in custody has soared over the past decade. Over 50% of children in custody are of an ethnic minority, an increase of over 20% over 10 years. The proportion of black children increased from 18% to 29% over the same period and nearly all are boys (97%). The watchdog also notes that nearly one third of incarcerated children report mental health disorders.
Previously, major concerns have been raised about the secure training centres that children deemed too vulnerable for young offender Institutes are held in. This has resulted in widespread closures, with the girls and boys being transferred to custody. The government has promised to set up two secure schools but the NAO reveals that the opening of the first has been delayed by almost three years with costs rising from £4.9m to a staggering £36.5m as a result of design revisions. Work is yet to start on the second school. The Ministry of Justice stated ‘our new secure school will put education, healthcare and rehabilitation at the heart of our efforts to cut crime’.
Andrew Neilson, the director of campaigns for the Howard League for Penal Reform, told the Guardian: ‘When a child is in trouble, we should do all that we can to keep them safe and guide them away from crime. This is why it is so concerning that, after a decade in which the number of children in custody has been reduced by 80%, recent policy decisions risk sweeping more boys and girls into our failing criminal justice system’. Mr Neilson called for Ministers to ‘get serious on how the government will reverse this unacceptable state of affairs’. ‘The Ministry and HMPPS recognise that significant work is required to improve the youth custodial estate if it is to meet the increased demand for places and children’s needs’.