Children in Prison
In the definition given by the General Medical Council (2016), the term “children” refers to “younger minors who do not have the maturity or understanding to make important decisions for themselves.” In the same report, the term “young people” is used for individuals who are “older or more experienced children and are more likely to be able to make decisions for themselves.” The law holds that when an individual reaches the age of 16, adolescents have the ability to render decisions regarding their respective welfare and status, though there are differences with regards to legal investigations and assessment.
Prior to the passage of modern laws protecting the rights of children, these were commonly found working in mills. During the era of the Industrial Revolution, it was not unusual for children to work at the mills in addition to accomplishing chores or helping in the family enterprise. The 1833 Factory Act regulated the daily working hours of the children as well as the days that the child can work. In addition, the law also mandated that mill and factory owners to establish schools and other educational facilities and were obligated to send the child to that school to learn basic education such as reading and writing in what came to be known as the “half-time system.”
However, though children had many opportunities to earn, there were times that money was tight, and this forced the child to instances of robbery and theft. There were children that chose to be thieves as their primary “job” as these believed that there was more money to be made from criminal activities than working at an honest job. During this time, though the punishments for crimes were extremely acerbic and severe, rates for preventing crimes were extremely low and it was only by the 1870s that mandatory schooling eventually saw a decrease in the number of children running afoul of the law (Leeds City Council).
The prevailing system in England and Wales has engendered a “silo scenario” depending in the agency dealing with the juveniles. Children who must be given care and support are under the auspices of Children’s Service; when the child outgrows the age limits of the system, these are regarded as the concern of “youth offending teams (YOTS) and Children’s Services might abandon their responsibility when the juvenile offender is processed through the system (Howard League for Penal Reform, 2009, p. 10).
In 1894, an article in the Fortnightly Review, Are our prisons a failure?” pointed to the seeming depreciated state of the nation’s prison system. In this time, the English prison system was, as described in the Law Quarterly Review, was a “manufactory of lunatics and criminals, and that the prison system has completely disintegrated (Cross, 1971, p. 2).
The report of the Transition to Adulthood Alliance (2015) avers that the most disturbing aspect was that negligence in the aspect of proper care, treatment and restoration of the juvenile inmate persists in existing facilities in the country and is prevalent characteristics of UK prison system. Though there have been “avalanches” of reform proposals in the aftermath of numerous investigations and inquiries, as well as proof from monitoring and administrative boards, intrinsic disruptions occur again and again.
Nonetheless, the action of incarcerating children was still an integral part of the criminal justice system in the UK. Fionda (2005) avers that through the 20th century, the trend of incarcerating children has been on the upswing. In the years 1992-2002, the number of children sent to prison increased by 85 per cent though levels of crimes committed by youths decreased by a quarter of a per cent (Gavin 2014, p. 38). The age threshold for youths and children under English law is not in line however with international standards. The issue of criminal liability of the child is not solely centred on the age of the child, but also on the impacts of the policy on the child and the treatment of the child running in conflict with the law.
England and Wales have the lowest age brackets for assessing criminal liability of children compared to its European counterparts. In the report of the National Children’s Bureau (2010, p. 10), there are two effects of maintaining a lower age for children offenders. One, England and Wales incarcerate more children than any European country, and it is believed that the earlier the child is bought into contact with the system, the higher possibility that the child will reoffend.
The second is that the higher age of criminal culpability tends to point to the possibility that the society is looking at the issue of child offenders from a welfare standpoint of marginalization and need; if the age set by society, it views juveniles as offenders. Though there is a general sentiment that authorities should reduce the number of children sent to jail, there is a growing indication that the reverse will be pursued (Community Justice Portal, 2010).
The “demonization” of the child has displayed a new “internal nemesis.” The identities of the children have been abandoned and dehumanized, and the children have been imbibed with a sense of wretchedness and evil. Children that challenge the law must be “put down” with shifts in the philosophies impacting juvenile justice (Scraton, 2004, pp. 136-137).
The perception of the general public regarding youths and crime is that on the more severe forms such as assault and robbery. The focus on these types of crime redirects the attention of the public from the fact that a significant amount of the crimes committed by juvenile offenders are theft or other property offenses. Furthermore, self-disclosure reports affirm that offenders, and offending, among the juvenile sector are not uncommon to warrant such acerbic punishments. Moreover, though propensity among the youth to commit crimes rises swiftly in the “teenage” years, the trend rapidly drops as the youth matures into adulthood (Bateman, 2011, pp. 8-9).
Willow (2015) avers that the children who have “dug in” the criminal justice system-children who have become fixtures in the system-were seen to be more hesitant in reporting instances of having resolved reoffending issues compared to juveniles who have has minimal or no contact with the criminal justice system. Scotland, for example, implements a welfare centred policy; however, even though punishment is set aside in this structure, it is speculative whether the youths in the system will be able to provide the deliverables being desired by the system.
Oftentimes, it has been proffered that the methodology adopted by the United Kingdom with regards to punishing child offenders is too severe, and that a new model must be adopted. There are those who hold to the position that the current system is one that is deeply perplexing and one that is long due for re-examination and re-evaluation. There are others that have proffered that the prevailing juvenile justice system in the country is ineffective. In a 2010 report of the Policy Exchange, many youths in the country felt that the justice system did not hold their interests in high regard (Grimwood and Strickland 2013, p. 6).
The British Medical Association released a critical report on the issue of children in prison at a time when the concerns over children incarcerated are increasingly drawing the attention of Parliament. New legislative proposals are again proffering the use of restriction to maintain order in society and not only as a last resort for the offending youths. The fundamental precept here is that a well-functioning prison system is characterized by the fact that offenders are sent to prison as punishment and not to be punished in the facility.
Disturbingly, this precept comes under fire from overzealous political agendas that seek to make sanctioning regimes more retributory and obsessed on a definition for “proper punishment.” However, majority of the children as well as the adults being punished under this overly punitive regime have already been acquiesced with punishment. Even before these individuals were sent to prison for their actions and became enmeshed in the criminal justice system, a significant number of child delinquents are quite familiar with the punitive system of criminal justice.
Nonetheless, the incarceration of children were not designed as controlled mechanisms to exact punishment for the offense, but capricious acts of abuse developed from ignorance and exasperation. What is not being afforded child offenders are consistent levels of care, established processes, a feeling of wellbeing and an understanding of “paying back the wrong” and a system to be able to pay back the offense committed (Prison Reform Trust, 2016).
However, there are positive signs moving against the policy of incarcerating children. In Wales and England, who historically have imprisoned more children compared to other states in Europe, the numbers of children in detention facilities have decreased. This is in accord with the objectives of the government as well as the agenda of the United Nations’ Convention of the Rights of the Child which the United Kingdom is a party to. However, aspirations in this area extend beyond the action of statistical reductions. Government authorities must also look to reduce recidivism and enhance the amalgamation of the children from the facilities; statistics for children that have been or are incarcerated have dramatically lowered but reoffending rates have remained high.
The decreasing numbers of children in the criminal justice system is indicative of an opportunity to effect tangible changes in the system. The existing number of children in the system is equivalent to a medium facility that given sufficient resources and effort can effect substantive change in the manner of dealing with children in these facilities. The introduction of a longer school regimen for the children gives an increased sense of confidence that a “turnaround” can be within their reach.
However, the experience of the children in the criminal justice system varies depending on the area and jurisdiction where these are detained. In the report of the Children’s Commissioner for England, though there are actual opportunities to retool the system, aspirations for restoration and enhancing the chances of the juvenile for a better life, their main opponent in gaining a better chance at life is not the society, but the system itself that is limited by the sheer number of children offenders coming into the system with high levels of risks and threats (Children’s Commissioner for England).
Prison facilities form an important element in safeguarding the public from the most brutal criminals and penalizing the most heinous crimes. However, studies and practical experiences have consistently evinced the dangers of imprisonment as a justice policy. One, incarceration can irreparably damage the chances people will have to “make amends” and eventually fully contribute to society. By its mere definition, prisons constrict the opportunities of offenders to be able to give back to society and lead a productive life.
It is accepted that prison facilities can offer its “residents” comfortable housing, appropriate education, and work opportunities; though there are exceptions to the norm, the magnitude of the resources needed to adequately address the possible redirection of juvenile offenders from the criminal justice system has not been established. Due to this circumstance, many individuals re-enter society no better than when these were incarcerated (Rethinking Crime and Punishment Programme, 2002, pp. 2-3).
In this light, the 2013 Green Paper of the Government-Transforming Youth Custody-Putting education at the heart of detention-set out the objective of the government in that the purpose of the Government was to “prevent reoffending by children and [juveniles].” The methodology used in this system, in the Report, must be done by a combination of early intervention programs, the imposition of penalties for those that have broken the law, and restoration to direct the child offender to a path of productivity and integrity (Grimwood and Strickland 2013, p. 15).
The position for the jettisoning of the policy of imprisoning children, or reducing the use of the policy, has been strongly put forth by researchers, analysts, and even research groups. The initial argument for abolishing or significantly reducing the imposition of sentences on child offenders is a financial one; given the prevailing resource requirements, the cost of maintaining the policy is one that merits serious study. In 2010-2011, the allocation for the Youth Justice Board was at £ 452 million; however, the factor is just the beginning; there are additional costs incurred such as expenses to process the child through the system and detaining the child for the sentence rendered by the courts.
Aside and moreover the financial costs are the various traumas that the child will experience in the course of their detention. Bullying, racism, and inadequate health care facilities are some of the common characteristics of the UK penal system, aside from self-injury and suicide. In the study of the HMIP (2010), it was estimated that three out of 10 of young males and two out of 10 young women felt in danger in the course of their “stay” at the Young Offender Institution.
The United Nations asserts that the practice of incarcerating a child for a criminal offense must be done as a “matter of last resort.” However, in the years after the adoption of the policy, the use of this practice has anything but a matter of “last resort.” The Child Commission report serious violations of the tenets of the UN accord; it is held that all individuals, whether child or adult, are given the same rights these had prior to incarceration. Incarceration and the deprivation of one’s freedom are among the most punitive sanctions; in the area of imprisoning children, government authorities deliberately place children in extremely dangerous situations, such as being victimized by prison officials and fellow inmates. Rather than allocate vast sums of scarce public funds to detaining children, government should instead fund other alternative programs that would steer the child clear of the system early on (Gavin, 2014, pp. 40-42).
Bateman, T., 2011, Children in conflict with the law: an overview of trends and developments [online] Available at:<http://thenayj.org.uk/wp-content/files_mf/children_in_conflict_with_the_law__final_22.03.12.pdf [Accessed 24 January 2016]
Children’s Commission for England and Wales. Unlocking potential [online] Available at: <https://www.childrenscommissioner.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/UnlockingPotential_0.pdf [Accessed 24 January 2016]
Community Justice Portal., 2010, Public says lock up fewer children [online] Available at:<http://www.cjp.org.uk/publications/archive/public-says-lock-up-fewer-children-15-09-2010/ [Accessed 24 January 2016]
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Fionda, J., 2005., Devils and angels: youth, policy, and crime. Oxford: Hart Publishing
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Scraton, P., 2004, Childhood in crisis? New York: Routledge
Transition to Adulthood Alliance, 2015, Stolen lives and missed opportunities: the deaths of young adults and children in prison [online] Available at:<http://www.barrowcadbury.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Inquest-Report_finalversion_Online.pdf [Accessed 24 January 2016]
Willow, C., 2015, Children behind bars: why the abuse of child imprisonment must end. Bristol: Policy Press