06/01/2011 07:02 GMT | Updated 22/05/2015 06:12 BST

Crime And Punishment: Do We Lock Up Too Many Children?

The government's decision to scrap the Youth Justice Board as part of a wider drive to reduce the number of quangos has reignited the debate about the way our criminal justice system treats children and young people.

The £500m-a-year board, established by the Labour government in 1998 to prevent offending and reoffending by under-18s and ensure custody is safe and secure, will be wound down and its functions transferred to the Ministry of Justice.

Reactions to its demise have been mixed, with some heralding its success at reducing the numbers of young people in custody and cutting reoffending and others dismissing its record as "pretty poor".

Whatever the truth of its legacy, the board's abolition marks a turning point. At the very least, there will no longer be a body dedicated to the specific needs and problems of young offenders, and there is a danger that those needs will be overshadowed by other priorities within the Ministry of Justice's already crowded remit.

More than 2,000 children and young people aged 10 to 18 are currently locked up in young offender institutions, secure training centres and secure children's homes in England and Wales. Although the numbers have fallen since their 2002 peak, that's still a hell of a lot of young people spending time behind bars, away from their families, sometimes for relatively minor offences. Thousands more receive non-custodial sentences, reprimands or warnings.

If this approach actually worked, we might be in a stronger position to defend it. But studies show that nearly seven in ten young children given a community service order, for example, go on to reoffend, starting a merry-go-round of involvement with the criminal justice system that too often continues into adulthood.

And there are other dangers. Between 1990 and 2007, 30 children died in custody, and a number of institutions have been criticised for their routine and excessive use of methods of restraint that would be considered abusive in the outside world.

Our willingness to punish rather than understand says a great deal about our society's attitude to children and young people in general. Elsewhere in Europe, the majority of countries treat a child committing a crime as a welfare issue and use it as an opportunity to examine what is causing the child's behaviour and try to address those causes. By contrast, we treat children as young as ten as criminals responsible for their actions - despite myriad studies showing the high levels of parental neglect and abuse, mental health problems and educational difficulties that have been suffered by children who end up in custody.

Specific details of the new government's youth justice policy are yet to be announced, although one justice minister has called for a "radical" look at current arrangements to ensure that rehabilitation is prioritised. Whatever approach wins out, it should be remembered that children who offend are still children, and need protection rather than punishment.

By: Laura Smith