IPRT - Irish Penal Reform Trust

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Punishing Disadvantage: a profile of children in custody

14th September 2010

A report published today by the Prison Reform Trust, in cooperation with the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, provides compelling evidence on the pathways for those children who end up in prison.

Punishing Disadvantage, the first research of its kind in the UK for two decades, meticulously investigated the circumstances of 300 children sentenced to custody in the last six months of 2008.

The findings support previous research, showing disadvantage to be a huge uniting factor for all those children sentenced to imprisonment. The complex interaction of indicators of disadvantage was shown to emerge sharply from a profile of the children: chaotic family lives, one fifth having experience of the care system, self-harm, absent mother or father, criminality and substance misuse within the family, experience of abuse and neglect, difficulties with literacy and numeracy and a higher likelihood of truancy from school or exclusion from school.

The report notes that it was persistence, rather than gravity of offence, which had caused many of the young people to be imprisoned; resulting in custodial sentences for many minor offences which would usually not warrant such a sentence.

The report cites the presence of ‘net-widening’ in the huge increase in numbers of young people incarcerated, rather than any dramatic increase in youth crime. This echoes the many warnings of other academics and practitioners, that interventions should be careful not to counter-act their intentions by drawing many young people into contact with the criminal justice system unnecessarily.

The report recommends a welfare approach to youth offending, encompassing three elements: the raising of the age of criminal responsibility to 14, the European average; the introduction of welfare agencies to ensure the health and social care needs of these children are met while reducing the contact with the justice system; for those above the age of criminal responsibility the appropriate health and social care agencies should work alongside the justice agencies.

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