With tens of thousands of children aged under 16 being detained overnight in police cells, the majority of whom are innocent of any crime, the Howard League for Penal Reform has called for a ban on overnight police detention of under 14s, calling it a "dangerous and frightening practice that does more harm than good". The charity hopes to spare least 11,500 children between the age of 10 to 13 the trauma of being detained overnight in a police cell every year.
According to figures in a recent report published by the Howard League on the overnight detention of children in police cells, at least 53,000 children aged under 16 were detained overnight in just over half the country’s police cells in 2008 and 2009. The report also recommends raising the age of criminal responsibility in line with European standards of 14 years. This would stem the flow of children into police custody.
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform said, "I was horrified to discover how prevalent [is] the practice of holding young children in police cells for one or even several nights across the country. The figures from the report are still an underestimation as only half of police forces responded to our FOI request.
“What children need is somewhere safe, not somewhere secure. From conversations we have had with the police, it seems that some children are being held in police cells for child protection reasons, for example when a child is found out alone at night. The Howard League is warning that this will increase as local authorities face cuts to children's services."
She concluded, "If parents can’t be relied upon to provide a safe place for these children, it is up to the local authority. A police cell is not an appropriate place for children, and this commonplace, dangerous and frightening practice does more harm than good.”
Dr Layla Skinns from the University of Sheffield, who researched and wrote the report for the Howard League, is concerned about the complexity of the legislation affecting the overnight detention of children and more importantly by its effects on children. She said: “There appears to be a break-down in the referral process between police custody and local authority accommodation. Local authority accommodation does not appear to be being provided because there isn’t the availability or because requests for it are not being made in the first place.
"Spending the night in a police cell is likely to be a frightening and intimidating experience for children who will be placed in the same environment as adults. This needs to change. Other options need to be explored, such as greater use of police bail or emergency foster care. And there needs to be less complexity in the legislation and greater accountability when the referral process breaks down.”
The report also draws attention to the legal anomaly which means that 17 year olds are treated as adults in police custody despite being regarded as children in other parts of the criminal justice system. This means that they enter the system as adults, but if they end up in court, they will be tried as children.
The report also reveals that police training on the treatment and overnight detention of children is limited, so police are uncertain about their powers and responsibilities, sometimes detaining a child overnight when other options could provide the place of safety that they need. The charity contends that laws designed to safeguard children should be applied appropriately by the police or children will be put at risk.
The Howard League believes many children are being arrested and detained unnecessarily. At least a quarter of a million children were arrested last year – including 22,135 aged 10 to 13 – but only 81,500 were sentenced by a court and only 4,200 were sentenced to custody.
Frances Crook added, "This suggests that for two thirds of children who are put through the trauma and indignity of an arrest and detention in a police station, it was unnecessary."
Of the 53,000 children detained overnight in 2008 and 2009:
· 10,845 were girls (21 per cent).
· 10,050 were black and minority ethnic children (20 per cent)
· Four were under the age of 10, which is the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales