THE HARMFUL IMPACT of remanding children to custody is revealed in a new briefing from the Howard League for Penal Reform, focused on the experiences, voices and lessons to be learned from five teenagers in prison.
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. Alongside legal casework, the charity has talked to children about their experiences on remand and their perceptions of why they came to be 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 briefing 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.
Andrea Coomber, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The moving accounts from young people who shared their experiences with the Howard League contain important lessons for all who are charged with protecting children from harm.
“Custodial remand punishes children for the mistakes of the services around them and exposes them to abusive prison environments. It does untold damage to their mental health and prevents them from working towards their goals with support from professionals, as they could do on bail.
“Although the evidence is clear that remanding a child to prison must be an absolute last resort, we know that this is not being heeded in courtrooms across the country – as almost three-quarters of the children remanded do not go on to receive a custodial sentence.
“The Ministry of Justice has recognised that keeping the use of remand to a minimum is critically important; the challenge now is to follow this with action. It requires not only a change in practice, but a change in culture, too.”
The Howard League met the five young people in prison in the autumn of 2021. Although they were on remand, all five said that they had been treated the same as children who had been sentenced to prison.
Some of the young people told the Howard League that they had not expected to be remanded and did not feel that it was fair, especially as time went on. Joshua, 17, a Black British child, had spent 16 of the previous 18 months in custody on remand. He had never received a custodial sentence; previous charges against him had either been dropped or led to community sentences. The remand decisions made no sense to him.
Joshua was one of two children the Howard League met who had been convicted and were awaiting sentencing. The other was Aaron, 16, a mixed white and Black child. Both had experienced repeated trauma in their family homes, in care and in their social environments, and professionals suspected that they had been exploited to run drugs (though they did not see it this way). Neither felt that anyone else would keep them or their friends safe.
When the children’s past experiences were considered, they felt that this was in solely negative terms. Sentencers could form an opinion based on past offences – Aaron said that one judge told him “if I see you again, I’ll send you to jail” – and this undermined the children’s faith in the legal system, giving them the impression that judges acted on their own personal feelings.
The young people found legal proceedings confusing and anxiety-inducing, especially where they were facing multiple charges. Tosin, a Black British young adult, had been scheduled to attend court on the day that he met the Howard League, but when he was asked about this he explained that “I’m not sure, I think my case got adjourned, I don’t know which case”.
Tosin had recently turned 18 and was due to transfer to the adult estate midway through his court proceedings. He was being held in the youth estate temporarily for a psychiatric assessment to see whether he should be transferred to hospital, following concerns raised by the prison mental health team that he was autistic.
Hassan, 16, a British Asian child, described prison as “traumatising…even though I take sleeping tablets, at silly o’clock in the morning there are people banging on the pipes not letting me sleep, banging on the walls…being very rude”. He had experienced verbal abuse and discrimination, which he was struggling to cope with.
Healthcare staff told the Howard League that Hassan was suffering from the impact of recent and historic trauma. One of his closest family members was terminally ill and he had experienced two sudden bereavements. The retraumatising prison environment had compounded these issues.
Abdul, 17, a mixed white and Asian child awaiting trial, was a victim of trafficking who estimated that he had lived in 15 or 20 care homes. He said that his exploiters had often threatened to hurt his family members if he did not do what they asked, and they were determined to punish him for having lost their drugs. But when Abdul tried to get his family moved out of the area, professionals did nothing.
By the time the Howard League met Abdul, he had been remanded to prison for his own welfare as the court had considered he would be safe in custody. Yet Abdul explained that his exploiters were giving orders to other children in the prison and he felt at even greater risk. He remained worried about his family, who had still not been moved.
The briefing recommends that the Bail Act 1976 should be amended to remove the option of remanding a child to prison for their own welfare. Each year children are remanded for their own welfare, when in fact there are strict legal duties on local authorities to provide alternative care. Prisons are not equipped to provide children with the support required in such cases.
The Howard League has supported the five young people with bail, resettlement and letters of mitigation to be considered at their sentencing hearings.
The briefing notes that children benefit from lawyers who specialise in working with children. It recommends that more should be done to support and encourage all children at risk of remand to have specialist legal representation.
The briefing also calls for better guidance on remand decision-making for judges and magistrates that aligns with overarching sentencing principles for children. This should include active consideration of the impact on a child’s education and mental health.
A legal guide, explaining how lawyers can take practical action to prevent children being remanded to prison, is to be published by the Howard League later this year.
The young people’s stories echo the Howard League’s work on the criminalisation of children in residential care, which described children’s experiences of living in homes where they were not loved or cared about. More information here
* Read: Children on remand. Remand briefing two: Voices and lessons here.
* Source: Howard League for Penal Reform