THE BLOG

Stop Being So Hard on Our Youngsters - Or Watch Tragedy Unfold

26/11/2014 10:36 GMT | Updated 25/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Everyone who has taught or parented teenagers knows just how vulnerable they are. At one moment they give you hell, the next they just need a hug and a cry. As any parent can tell you, when a teenager gets into trouble of any kind it takes exquisite sensitivity to unpack the tangled mess of rage, remorse and shame - and the impact a right or wrong word can have. That makes the following story all the harder to bear.

In January 2012 17-year-old Jake Hardy was found hanging in his cell at Hindley Young Offenders Institution. We acted for his family at Jake's inquest, which concluded this year. The jury delivered a scathing narrative verdict that detailed a dozen failures by the state which contributed to his death.

Jake's inquest cast grave doubts on whether our government has adequate systems in place to care for children in custody.

The ensuing Prevention of Future Deaths Report by coroner Alison Hewitt confirmed that policies and procedures designed to protect vulnerable detainees at risk of self-harm were not adequately utilised in Jake's case. In damning terms, Hewitt pointed out that some prison staff lacked aptitude, temperamental suitability or understanding for working with vulnerable youths.

This case does not stand alone. There have been 33 deaths of people under 21 in state custody since the beginning of 2011, with 9 of these happening so far this year, and three self-inflicted deaths of children under 18 in Young Offender Institutions between April 2011 and January 2012. The latest report by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman Nigel Newcomen, looking at a sample of 80 self-inflicted deaths in custody of 18- to 24-year-olds, notes it "is disheartening and tragic to see a number of the same issues recur".

Youths in state custody comprise a particularly vulnerable section of the population. The Prison Reform Trust has reported that 11% of young people in state custody have previously attempted suicide. The rate of suicide in boys aged 15-17 who have been sentenced and remanded in custody in England and Wales may be 18 times higher compared with the general population.

In the 2013 case of HC v Home Secretary the High Court ruled the provisions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) which allow police to treat 17-year-olds in the police station as adults were unlawful. Amendments to the legislation were delayed, since when 17-year-old Kesia Leatherbarrow died shortly after being held for a weekend in a police station. It is therefore welcome news that the Government is to amend the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill to ensure that all 17-year-olds will be treated in the same way as those of 16 and under. However, far more still needs to be done.

The Ministry of Justice announced in February that Lord Harris would head an independent review into self-inflicted deaths of 18- to 24-year-olds in state custody. However there are no plans to expand the ambit of the review to include children, despite 16 of them dying in custody since the Youth Justice Board was established in 2000.

In the UK we are uniquely punitive towards our youngsters. Many countries across Europe have more humane regimes for young people in trouble. Not only the Scandinavian countries do this. Spain has an exceptionally liberal and forward-thinking regime for children based on an educational model. It boasts a 70% success rate in turning the lives of these youngsters around. By contrast, the UK has a 70% failure rate in deterring young people from crime after a spell in detention.

The Centre for Social Justice published data in 2014 showing that just one in nine state-run Young Offenders Institutions are delivering their minimum requirement of 15 hours of education to each teenager per week. All these places do is contain their inmates.

There is no doubt as to the damage which society suffers as a result. We can be kinder to young people in trouble, offer treatment which is more effective and in the long run reduce the cost of crime and of blighted lives.

In the aftermath of Jake Hardy's inquest, it is time for the government to engage in a radical rethink of the way in which this country treats both children and young offenders in the 18-24 age group. We need a fundamental shift away from the punitive and towards rehabilitation.