Locking up children is criminal

This piece is written by Alice Miles and originally appeared in the New Statesman on 20/09/10

Lowering the age at which children can be locked up to ten in 1998 was cruel and counter-productive. Barnardo’s petition campaign to raise it to 12 is a good start.

The children’s charity Barnardos has started a campaign to have the age of criminal intent in England raised from ten to 12. It is a rather nervous little campaign; the petition on its website frames the argument in terms of wasted money, not moral imperative. And it even proposes retaining the age of ten for children accused of murder, manslaughter or rape. I don’t understand the exclusion of these serious crimes; surely a child who kills somebody is more in need of understanding than one who steals a packet of sweets?

The lowering of the age of criminal intent to ten might as well be known as “Bulger’s law”. Recommended by Michael Howard in the wake of the death of James Bulger in 1993 and enacted by Jack Straw, it abandoned the presumption of doli incapax for ten-to-14-year-olds, changing the age at which a child is presumed to know the difference between doing something naughty and doing something criminally wrong back down to ten. Along with Switzerland, England and Wales now have the lowest age of criminal responsibility in Europe.

The Bulger case was a new low in the demonisation of children, with Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, the two ten-year-olds who abducted James Bulger from that Bootle shopping centre, widely branded evil: “freaks of nature”, “spawn of Satan”, “animals”, as the press had it. “We will never be able to look at our children in the same way again,” opined the Sunday Times. “Parents everywhere are asking themselves and their friends if the Mark of the Beast might not also be imprinted on their offspring.” Well, speak for yourself.

Labour’s response to this hysteria was a disgrace. Nine days after the killing of Bulger, the then home secretary – Ken Clarke, the man now in charge of the review Barnardos is trying to influence – declared that offenders under 15 would be incarcerated in future. In the same newspaper, the PM, John Major, blamed parents and the church (the church!) for not disapproving enough of criminal behaviour: it was time to “condemn a little more and understand a little less”. As the Conservatives ratcheted up the rhetoric, the shadow home secretary – Tony “Tough on Crime, Tough on the Causes of Crime” Blair – felt obliged to match it.

And he kept matching it. Throughout his own term in office, New Labour was strangely plagued by “yob” behaviour and a perceived lack of respect. The catalogue of new child orders Labour invented would be funny if it weren’t such a depressing litany of the conscious political alienation of “youth”. In the first wave were parenting orders and antisocial behaviour orders, detention and training orders, and drug treatment and testing orders. Over the next decade came referral orders, exclusion orders and the electronic monitoring of ten-year-olds, followed by penalty notices, dispersal orders and compulsory drug-testing for children. And after ten years of this, they still felt the need to publish an 80-page Youth Crime Action Plan.

Control, control, control: the moral panic of a nation threatened by the poor, the black, the young. Remember how Margaret Thatcher managed to elide strikers and street robbers? “In their muddled but different ways, the vandals on the picket line and the muggers on our streets have got the same confused message – ‘We want our demands met or else’ and ‘Get out of the way/give us your handbag or else’.” You wait until the crime figures rise, or rioting begins, in response to the Conservatives’ cuts and the mass unemployment that follows. Which side will Labour be on this time?

We do condemning and toughness very well, as a nation. The UK is not unique in jailing children, but along with Germany and the Netherlands, it does stand out in western Europe for its particularly enthusiastic approach. The juvenile prison population doubled from 1,328 in June 1992 to 3,000 ten years later, and stayed fairly stable at around 3,000 throughout most of Labour’s term in office – yes, despite all the monitoring and orders and action plans.

It has suddenly dipped in the past two years, due, the Youth Justice Board suggests, not to the effect of all that “tough on crime” rhetoric but to the multi-agency work of youth offending teams, which try to keep youngsters out of trouble and out of jail. Youth offending fell by a fifth in the three years to 2009. Still, as of this summer, there were 1,624 juveniles aged 15-17 in young offender institutions (YOIs) in England and Wales, as well as 275 children aged 12-15 in secure training centres and 176 in local authority children’s homes. Labour boasted among the highest rates of custody for under-18s in Europe. In 2007, there were 3,000 under-18s in custody in England and Wales; in Denmark, there were three.

We might incarcerate a great many children, but we do not incarcerate them well. Between 1990 and 2007, 30 children died in custody. A report by Alex Carlile in 2006 noted the routine use of restraints in children’s prisons that would be considered abusive outside them; 296 children sustained injuries from the use of restraint over a two-year period.

Two years later the chief inspector of prisons called for the closure of a secure training centre – the sort of private-sector-run institution in which children as young as 12 are locked up, which were opened under Labour and increasingly favoured over local authority-controlled homes – because of the “staggeringly high level of use of force by staff”. But, unlike with that Bootle shopping centre, we don’t see the CCTV footage from juvenile jails. Perhaps we should.

I wonder what the Lib Dems in government will have to say about this; there must be some principles they refuse to shed. In the meantime, I have signed that petition from Barnardo’s – although it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

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