There are three custodial establishments for young people, they are Young offender institutions, Secure training centres and Secure children's homes. The Standing Committee for Youth Justice (2010) reported that during the period of 1989 to 2009, the child custody population in England and Wales increased by 795%. There is no obvious evidence showing that the youth crime become more serious recently, but more young people was sent to prisons. These large amounts of young prisoners have already brought a big pressure to the prison system, and it has become an alarming issue in England and Wales.
The prison lives are much more badly than we imagined. They are neglected from the society, some of you may say they are put in the prison because they commit crime, it is fair enough. Incarceration of offenders may have deterrence effect as they will not further commit crime in the future, but the truth is the reoffending rate still stays high. For this, I always doubt "Do we need to incarcerate all under-age offenders?" and "Do prisons work for all offenders?". Prison may cause more personal and social problems that we never expect. Also, children who sentenced to prisons have their own problems or difficulties before they getting sent to prison, it may include poor family backgrounds or drugs abuse, etc. These make the prison system more difficult to handle these children, and thus causing the problem of resources and management.
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Many concerning parties are doing different reforms as they want to reduce the number. "Prison Reform Trust" is one of the charities who promote alternatives to custody. It has launched a new campaign "Out of Trouble" especially helps those children and young people who are imprisoned in the UK. Also, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child Article 36(d) stated that custody be used as a last resort. However, Prison Reform Trust criticized the juvenile court doesn't follow it strictly.
Everyone understands that the statuses of children and adult are different, it is assumed that child should have more chance than adult. Children are important capital to our future society, so the prison system has greater responsibilities to help those youth offenders a better future. Under this perspective, people always argue about the purpose of imprisoning a child should be different from the adult one too. Society always place greater hope on these groups of vulnerable children. No matter the society, professionals or the government, they will put greater emphasis on "rehabilitation" rather than "punishment", but the problem is "how to make a balance between punishment and rehabilitation?"
The first thing to concern about is "resources", that's the money-cost. Many news reports complained that youth custody spent too much but with an unpleasant outcome in return. Every year many millions of pounds are wasted for locking up children for committing both violent and non-violent offences, it is extremely costly but fails to reduce the amount of crime. According to the report "Punishing costs: How locking up children is making Britain less safe"(2010), Aleksi Knuutila stated that holding a child in prison costs about £100,000 a year in England and Wales. "Prison Trust Reform" always argues that some very minor offences will result in custodial sentences, and they state that non-violent crime offenders should not be sentenced to prison as it is a waste of resources.
However, the Independent Commission on Youth Crime and Antisocial Behavior (2010) showed a disappointing result of reconviction rate, "three quarters of all young people leaving custody re-offend within a year" which means almost three out of four young offenders reoffend within a year after they release. We have already paid many millions for these youths, but we just did very little to change their behavior and protect the society.
Except the money cost, we can see that the present system has limit ability to help these vulnerable child back to the right tracks. At first, people believe harsher punishment can help to deter them from doing further criminal behavior. But the truth is that the lives in prison make youngsters get closer to crime, or even breeding them into professional criminals. This is one of the struggle points for the prison system to manage and allocate those youngsters in the right places.
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The prison system also needs to try their best to ensure that children in prison still have their proper lives, which include giving them educational support and mentally support. As children are valuable capitals to our future society, although they did something wrong, they still have the chance to learn. Education is important to youngsters at any places, this can help youngsters to build up different kinds of skills and abilities, thus integrate back to normal life easier when they release. Most of the public support that youth institutions should give education and training to the children in prisons, this places great pressure on the prison system yet they have already put a lot of resources in providing children different education and training inside the prisons.
Moreover, there is still statistics showed that the prison system is not doing enough for the children. According to the report "Training planning for children and young people" (2010), it stated that "prisons are failing to adequately prepare young people for release." One of the problems is that there is lack of "accredited offending behavior programmes" for the young prisoners. Even those young prisoners set up some targets for their training plans, they may not find suitable programme to achieve them through the imprisonment period. Also, it is reported that many children release from prisons till have difficulties in their learning. This showed that the prison system doesn't spend well, and they cannot learn what they should learn in the prisons.
Special attention should also be put on child's psychological needs. Inside the prison, juvenile will be allocated into different cells. It is not easy to adapt the prison lives, and it may cause them different psychological problems, such as depression. The Standing committee for youth justice report (2010) stated that "Boys in custody are 18 times more likely to suicide than children in the community". We can see that it is a serious problem inside the prisons. However, it is not possible for all prison officers to have specific training to handle these problems. If the problem is ignored for a certain period of time, it may cause them suffer from some more serious mental problems. Handling the psychological needs of offenders has become one of the responsibilities of the prison system, but resources are limited for them. Again, it places greater pressure on prison's work.
Evidences of reconviction rate have also showed that the present prison system is failing to restore and rehabilitate children in their prison lives. The prison system should ensure the children learn from their mistakes and the moral values through their sentences. It is important for youngsters to understand what is right and wrong, and why they are punished, it can reduce the possibilities of reoffending. However, it may bring some negative effects to the child and society, and even cannot facilitate them in reintegration and rehabilitation. Organizations of protecting children always advocate the use of community sentences, for this, children can learn from community and learn in community. Community support is important to youth offenders, if they build up good relationship with the community, they can be integrate back into the community more easily. However, the prison system does not do much in this area and still has rooms for improvement.
As mentioned above, youth prison is required to do differently. Not only punishing them for their wrongdoings, but to "fix their brain". It is important to do more about "rehabilitation, reformation and reintegration". Children are vulnerable and relatively inexperienced with the world, they are easily affected by the external factors. If child only arrange to do some routine works in prison, it is impossible for us to change their behavior. The system need to develop a different approach for them as it has greater responsibilities to restore and reform them. However, it is not a simple task.
Setting up and working with a system which is different from the adult system, it has already made "child in custody under 18" the most pressing issue in the prison system. Prison officers have many challenging works like providing children proper educational support in prison, taking care of child psychological needs, working with communities, doing work of "rehabilitation", etc. All these work has given the prison system many challenges and making the "child in custody under 18" becomes the most pressing issue in the prison system.
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Standing Committee for Youth Justice (2010), Raising the custody threshold. Available from:, The Howard League for Penal Reform Web site: http://www.scyj.org.uk/files/Raising_the_custody_threshold_SummaryAug10_FINAL.pdf [Accessed: November 2, 2010]
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