Youth justice needs a radical overhaul to stop the system from failing Scottish children by sending them to prison, it has been claimed.
The call is at the heart of this year’s annual Kilbrandon lecture, named after Lord Kilbrandon, who chaired the 1960s committee leading to the formation of the Scottish Children’s Hearings system.
Dr Claire Lightowler, formerly the director of the Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice, used the prestigious lecture to lay out the case for Scotland to stop putting children behind bars.
Her analysis of prison statistics from 2021 shows that up to 94 per cent of under 18s in prison were on remand – with some reporting being held in cells for up to 23 hours a day – despite the fact that their case had not been tried and they had not been found guilty.
Others were there for minor crimes and some had even been trafficked, as previously reported by The Ferret.
Over two thirds spent less than two hours a day out of their cell, which Lightowler suggested is “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment”. In a survey last year by the prison inspectorate just under half said they felt stressed and anxious all of the time.
“There are many examples of where our approach to children who offend is going badly wrong, but one of the clearest is for our children in a Young Offenders Institution (YOI) or a prison,” she said in the lecture. In previous years it has been delivered by high profile figures including Nicola Sturgeon and Dame Elish Angiolini.
“What are we doing taking such traumatised children, exposing them to extreme additional trauma, giving them new issues to deal with, and then returning them to the community, with no or little support,” she added.
She claimed young people have told researchers that they increasingly resort to using substances in prison “to self-medicate, pass the time and psychologically escape”.
Her lecture also referenced the tragic deaths of children who died in custody including 16 year old William Lindsay who took his own life while on remand in Polmont YOI in 2018, and Raygen Malcolm Josep Merchant who died at 17 years old in 2014.
Children who don’t come to the attention of the Children’s Hearing System are more likely to stop offending, compared to children committing the same offences who are already known to the system, or in care, she argued.
Now, she claimed in the lecture, 21st century reform of the ambition and scope of Kilbrandon’s work is needed to ensure all children are protected.
The call comes as new guidelines on the sentencing of young people, which require courts to prioritise the rehabilitation of those under 25, came into force on 26 January.
“The process of going to prison is totally dehumanising,” Lightowler told The Ferret. “Young people and children go into prison having already experienced trauma and once there, the focus is not on resolving that trauma.
“We know that even before they go into prison one in four have attempted suicide. They are then locked up for an average of 22 hours a day, utterly alone and without face-to-face support while they try to deal with everything that is happening to them. This situation needs to change.”
There has been a significant reduction in the number of children in prison in recent years. In 2010-11 there were 658 children who left prison and by 2019-20 that was just 136, a reduction of 79 per cent.
On the 7 January this year just 15 children (under 18s) were in prison. But Lightowler said the small numbers showed that it was possible for alternatives to be found and the practice to be ended.
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has repeatedly raised concerns about children being held in the adult justice system in Scotland.
“This situation is unacceptable and needs to change urgently,” said Bruce Adamson, Scotland’s Children and Young People’s Commissioner.
“Scotland’s low age of criminal responsibility and the continuing detention of children in prisons paints a bleak picture of our commitment to children’s rights.
“They are children in need of care, protection, and therapeutic support to recover from trauma and adversity. Their needs and behaviour must be addressed in a child-friendly justice system where their rights, welfare and best interests are respected, protected and fulfilled.
“The adult justice system does not meet these requirements. Prison is not an appropriate environment for a child.”
He called on the Scottish Government to honour its commitment to implement the recommendations to prevent children being detained in prison by 2024, outlined in its 2020 Care Review, the Promise.
“The lack of urgency means that children’s rights will continue to be breached, putting them at risk of long-term harm,” he added.
Tom Fox, head of corporate affairs for the Scottish Prison Service, agreed that the aim must be to stop criminalising children. “If you look at the direction of travel we are moving to stop putting kids in prison,” he said. “It’s about half of what it was ten years ago.”
He added: “But the reality is we need to go further with other groups too, including women. We are using custody much more than others are in Europe and that raises a lot of questions.”
The Scottish Government has been asked to comment.
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