Plans to reform child sentences

Derren Hayes
Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Proposals for tougher community and custody sentences in white paper concern youth justice experts.

The white paper states that it is important that custodial sentences reflect the seriousness of offending. Picture: Peter Crane
The white paper states that it is important that custodial sentences reflect the seriousness of offending. Picture: Peter Crane

The government’s white paper, A Smarter Approach to Sentencing, sets out a number of proposed changes to the way the criminal justice system deals with child offenders.

The general thrust of reforms in the sentencing white paper is for longer sentences handed out and served for children convicted of serious crimes, and greater monitoring for those living in the community on licence.

Other proposals will change how youth offending services and children’s services practitioners work with young people.

Serious offences

The paper states that it is important that custodial sentences reflect the seriousness of their offending “for the very small number of children for whom custody is necessary”. It adds that reform is necessary to improve the “coherence” of sentences and ensure that courts “have the tools they need to pass appropriate sentences that properly reflect the seriousness of offending”. It proposes to:

  • Modernise the detention and training order, the most common custodial sentence, ending inflexible fixed lengths and the prescriptive 50/50 custody-community split.
  • Move the release point to two-thirds for those who receive a sentence of seven years or more for serious violent offences relating to homicide and for all serious sexual offences.
  • Ensure age and seriousness of crime is factored into starting points for murder sentencing, and reduce the number of tariff reviews available into adulthood.

Community sentences

The white paper states that courts will have the tools to deliver “stronger high-end community sentences” so that supervision is more effective. It also aims to reduce use of remand for young people, which is at a 10-year high. It proposes to:

  • Make greater provision in youth rehabilitation orders for location monitoring and for flexibility around curfews. Youth offending teams or probation staff will be the responsible officer orders rather than the electronic monitoring provider.
  • Pilot extended duration and mandatory location monitoring within the most intensive current community sentence.
  • Abolish reparation orders.
  • Raise the threshold for imposing custodial remand and require courts to record their rationale.

Measures in the white paper are expected to be taken forward in legislation published in 2021.


By Campbell Robb, chief executive, Nacro

The proposal to strengthen the legal test for custodial remand for children is very welcome. Almost a third of all children in custody are on remand, a higher proportion than at any time in the last 10 years.

Remanding a child into custody should only ever be used as an absolute last resort.

We would like to see local authorities funded and incentivised to provide children in this position with appropriate accommodation and services instead.

The white paper’s focus on increasing the length of time spent in prison for serious offences and the reductions in opportunities for parole is a disappointing, but not surprising, punitive step. Despite what many of us think, length of sentences have increased significantly over the last two decades. This rhetoric does little to reduce reoffending.

Instead, the government should focus on following the evidence of what works and creating a justice system fit for the future.

It is positive to see the government looking again at the need to reform what is disclosed in a criminal record check. Unfortunately, their plans do not go far enough to create the fair, transparent and easy to understand system we need.


By Jenny Coles, president, ADCS

There are some encouraging proposals, such as reducing the amount of time some young people are required to disclose details of their convictions to prospective employers and the greater use of community resolutions.

This must sit alongside a focus on supporting children and young people earlier to prevent offending in the first place as well as rehabilitation, funding to support youth offending teams and wider children’s services to shift the dial on this will be critical but is unremarked upon here.

We also need greater emphasis and investment in tackling the root causes of offending behaviours, including poor mental and physical health, family dysfunction and low educational attainment, which will save the public purse money in the long run.

Some of the proposals around sentencing are concerning. Although the distinct and unique needs of children are recognised in the white paper the government’s plans more closely align the youth and adult justice systems. Whilst we recognise custodial sentences are necessary for the most serious crimes, children and young people’s offending behaviours must not blind us to their underlying needs and vulnerabilities and their capacity for change.


By Hazel Williamson, chair, Association of YOT Managers

We are concerned that this white paper represents a worrying move away from considering children who offend in the same way as their non-offending peers. The proposal is that 17-year-olds should be treated as 18-year-olds and yet within the Children Act they are classed as children until their 18th birthday. Proposals for 17-year-olds convicted of serious offences to [receive] longer custodial sentences on the basis of their age is an anomaly within criminal justice legislation.

The proposal for mandatory location monitoring within a youth rehabilitation order for children with an intensive supervision requirement is of concern. While location monitoring offers the opportunity to safeguard children and reduce risks to the community, it does pose problems for children and families who may be trying to sustain engagement with school and community activities.

Given that the profile of children within the formal criminal justice system is changing with many experiencing exploitation, and with the adoption of the principle of a “child first” focus, it is disappointing to see the proposals consider age as a determinant to appropriateness of sentence, as opposed to a child’s maturity or vulnerability.

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