Voices and lessons
A new (5 May 2022) publication from the Howard League for Penal Reform shed light on the harmful impact of remanding children to custody. “Voices and lessons” is the second briefing to be published as part of a Howard League project aimed at understanding and helping children on remand with their unmet legal support needs, it focuses on the experiences, voices and lessons to be learned from five teenagers in prison.
The briefing features accounts from five young people, aged 16 to 18. All were from racially minoritised communities and had come into contact with the criminal justice system while they were in care. Their stories highlight numerous areas of concern, including failure by statutory services to protect children from exploitation, poor education in prison, and unfair and confusing legal proceedings in court.
The publication comes four months after the Ministry of Justice published a review of custodial remand for children, which identified the critical importance of keeping its use to a minimum. Official figures reveal, however, that in the year ending March 2021, three-quarters of children remanded to youth detention accommodation did not go on to receive a custodial sentence – the highest level on record.
The Howard League briefing is a useful document, highlighting a range of key issues surrounding child remands with useful advice to practitioners, family members and policy makers:
- Children benefit from lawyers who specialise in working with children. More should be done to support and encourage all children at risk of remand to have specialist legal representation.
- Children on or at risk of remand require intensive support from their local authorities to ensure that there is always a viable alternative to custody.
- Children in care do not trust local authorities. This trust deficit needs to be repaired so that local authorities can fulfil their statutory obligations and provide robust and successful alternatives to custody, increasing children’s low expectations of children’s services.
- More needs to be done to support children who are suspected victims of modern slavery and to protect them from contact with the criminal justice system. Too often referrals to the National Referral Mechanism are simply noted and result in delays rather than additional support.
- Children who seek help from professionals should be provided with support even if they are unable to give details of exactly whom they are afraid of.
- A child’s first appearance in court is often the most important. Children’s services and youth offending teams responsible for the child need to be there, regardless of the operational difficulties that may pose.
- The criteria for remanding children needs to be aligned to the wider criminal justice system to reduce the discrepancy between the number of children remanded and those who go on to get a jail term.
- There should be better guidance on remand decision-making for judges and magistrates that aligns with the overarching sentencing principles for children. This should include active consideration of the impact on a child’s education and mental health.
- The Bail Act 1976 should be amended to remove the option of remanding a child to prison for their own welfare.
- More time and attention should be given to explaining remand decisions for children. Judges and magistrates should write down their reasons and explain them to the child, face to face.
- The cases of children who are remanded to custody should be prioritised and expedited to reduce uncertainty and harm.
- Specialist designated mental health support should be provided for children on remand so that any emerging needs can be identified and prioritised.