Picking up the Tab for Child Imprisonment

It costs over £200,000 a year to imprison a 13 year old for a year yet over 70% are re-convicted within a year of release. So surely we should only spend that kind of money if we really have to.

It costs over £200,000 a year to imprison a 13 year old for a year yet over 70% are re-convicted within a year of release. So surely we should only spend that kind of money if we really have to.

Children in England and Wales can be imprisoned from the age of 10, and the youngest are sent to secure children's homes. These expensive establishments, recently featured in the BBC 3 series Kids Behind Bars, do their best to look after and rehabilitate children but the odds are against them. Children who come to them on sentence or remand are often inside for a relatively short time, long enough to go through the trauma of being wrenched away from family and friends but too short to turn their lives around. Staff complain that any good work is undone when children return to poor accommodation, dysfunctional families and a peer group for whom crime is a way of life. The answer is not to imprison for longer, but to avoid imprisonment if possible.

A miracle has happened in youth justice. Over the last three years, the number of under 18 year olds imprisoned in England and Wales has reduced by a third. Without an increase in muggings and burglaries or a public furore. Without significant changes in legislation. At the same time the adult prison population has increased. But the Youth Justice Board is still spending too much of its budget on imprisonment. Two-thirds of its budget (£306 million) is spent on imprisonment per year.

One problem is that prison is a "free good". Community sentences for under 18 year olds are managed and in the main paid for by local councils. But as soon as a teenager is sentenced or remanded to custody, the financial burden on the local authority lifts since the very expensive cost of custody is borne by central government. If a teenager is in care and offending, they go from costing the council thousands of pounds a week to costing them virtually nothing. This of course does not mean councils want teenagers to be imprisoned. In fact Youth Offending Teams make strenuous efforts to prevent it happening. But there is absolutely no direct financial benefit to reducing imprisonment.

The Prison Reform Trust's Out of Trouble programme (www.outoftrouble.org.uk) has been working with Leeds Youth Offending team to help them reduce custody. They have reduced the numbers sent to custody by a third, which has saved central government over a million pounds. But Leeds has gained nothing financially. In fact the Youth Offending Team has had to implement a significant cut in funding, in line with the whole council.

Why shouldn't local authorities pay the bill for child imprisonment? If the whole imprisonment budget were delegated to local councils, then they could keep the money if fewer teenagers were locked up. This radical idea has been bandied about in policy circles for a few years. But now it is being realised.

The Youth Justice Board is about to announce that four consortia of local councils will pilot a "payment by results" scheme whereby they will gain financially if they reduce the number of local teenagers imprisoned. And the new Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill proposes that all councils should pick up the tab for the teenagers who are remanded in their area. These reforms have attracted little media attention but they herald a significant change in the levers of power and influence in criminal justice.

If local councils start to pay for the imprisonment of under 18 year olds, maybe they will be inspired to prevent more children being excluded from school (often the starting point for getting into trouble with the law) and to work more closely with the health service to deal with the mental health problems that often trigger offending. Maybe this is just a beginning of a major transfer of central government justice funding to local councils. If this prompts a reduction in the number of people who are imprisoned unnecessarily so much the better.


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