The Howard league: working to stem the flow of children into the “toxic penal system”

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The Howard league: working to stem the flow of children into the “toxic penal system”

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I am so proud of the Howard League’s contribution to the dramatic reduction in child arrests. Some ten years ago the Howard League published an academic review, written by Dr Layla Skinns, of the overnight detention of children in police stations. This was the first time the issue had been made a public and political concern. We then started collecting arrest figures and discovered that police had carried out over 310,000 child arrests in 2008.

Being arrested is life-blighting, especially for a child. A police station is no place for children, yet nearly 17,000 primary school-aged children had been arrested.

This was happening because of the targets imposed by the then Labour government, and children were an easy way to hit the target. Children who were being annoying were being criminalised. It is normal for young teens to test authority and challenge norms; the people who should deal with this behaviour are parents and schools, not police.

The charity worked with police across the country to challenge their practices and to suggest better responses. I was an advisor to the HM Inspector of Constabulary on vulnerable people in police custody and so inspections started to focus on detention of children. We published and cajoled, we tramped round police stations, spoke at conferences and we celebrated improving practice.

Last year we again published the arrest figures, which had been reduced massively to 79,000 – a staggering achievement. We are about to publish the figures for 2018 and I fully expect yet another reduction.

This reduction shows that the profligate arrests of children had been a terrible mistake. Hundreds of thousands of children had spent time in a police station and had their details taken, which could be revealed to future employers even decades later if they went into a sensitive profession.

The Edinburgh University Transitions research of a cohort of thousands of children has shown that police contact with children makes them more, not less, likely to get deeper involved in anti-social behaviour and crime.

The really good news is that, as a consequence of stemming the flow of children into the criminal justice system, far fewer children are going through it. Fewer are being prosecuted, fewer are being taken to court and fewer are ending up in custody.

It is no coincidence that the number of children in prison has dropped by the same percentage as the fall in arrests. Ten years ago there were nearly 3,500 children in prisons, now the number is just over 800.

This presents lessons for professionals working in the system with adults. If we can stem the flow at the entry point, we can have a dramatic impact on penal custody. Pushing the wrong people through the criminal justice system, for the wrong reasons and with the wrong outcome, must stop. It is practice change that makes the difference.

If we can stem the flow of children into the toxic wastelands of the penal system, we can do it with adults. The Howard League has just launched a new programme of work to stem the flow of women being arrested, and if we had the resources we would do it with men. If we all work together and learn from this good news, so often absent in the criminal justice system, we can achieve justice and fairness for men too.

Frances Crook, Howard League

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