Government unveils plans to send young people to adult jails

Neil Puffett
Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Young offender institutions (YOI) for 18- to 20-year-olds would be scrapped and young people sent to adult jails instead, under controversial plans being considered by government.

Child custody levels are at their lowest in more than a decade. Image: Phil Adams
Child custody levels are at their lowest in more than a decade. Image: Phil Adams

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) claims the current system is “no longer appropriate or effective”, and says the shake-up will allow young people to get better resettlement support.

But campaign groups have raised a host of concerns, arguing that young people’s safety will be placed in jeopardy.

Currently, around 6,000 18- to 20-year-olds in custody in England and Wales are held across 54 young adult YOIs. Seven of these are dedicated YOIs for 18- to 20-year-olds, with 47 designated as both prisons and YOIs, where young people and adults are held in separate accommodation.

But under the proposals any young person who is sentenced to custody, or transfers from the under-18 secure estate, would be sent to an adult jail.

The MoJ claim the proposals will allow young people to receive better resettlement support and be placed closer to home.

It says that it will also mean that young people on shorter sentences could be sent to prisons holding adults who have committed less serious crimes, rather than the current situation where they are often held with peers who are serious offenders with different rehabilitation and resettlement needs.

The decision on which prison young people are sent to will be made based on three factors – the length of their sentence, their rehabilitation needs, and where they come from.

Those serving less than 12 months will be sent to a resettlement prison that is local to their home area.

Those serving between 12 months and four years would be sent to a category C resettlement prison that has been “designated” to their home area.

And those serving more than four years will be sent to a “training prison”, before spending at least three months prior to release in a resettlement prison.

“We are concerned that we are not able to best meet the needs of young adults in the current system because there is a presumption that young adults should be kept together, regardless of the seriousness of their crime or other rehabilitation needs,” an MoJ consultation document on the proposals states.

“Young adults on long sentences, who have committed serious crimes and have longer term rehabilitation needs, are accommodated together with young adults on relatively short sentences, whose needs are more about resettlement and whose risks to the public are lower.

“We want to have the flexibility to allocate them [young offenders] to the most appropriate resettlement prisons to facilitate the most effective and supportive return to their communities.”

The MoJ argues the move could also address a growing issue with violence and gang affiliation in 18- to 20-year-old YOIs, pointing to the fact that although the age group makes up just 7.5 per cent of the overall prison population, it accounted for 25.3 per cent of all assailants in custody in 2012.

“When large numbers of people in this age group are held together, they can become so volatile it becomes difficult for staff to manage them,” the consultation document states.

“If this continues, there is a danger that the experience of young adults in custody will become more about containment and less about rehabilitation and supporting them to desist from offending.”

However, there are fears the move could trigger an increase in self-harm among young people as well as leaving them exposed to bullying and drug dealing.

There are also concerns about the implications for young people transferring from the under-18 estate.

Penelope Gibbs, chair of the Standing Committee for Youth Justice (SCYJ), said: “Young adults are very vulnerable and if they are moving from the under-18 secure estate to the adult estate it is incredibly important that the place to which they go understands, and caters to, their needs.

“There has been at least one suicide of a young adult who came from the under-18 estate but information about them did not transfer properly between the systems.

“Anything that might threaten the efficient transfer of information and understanding about the needs and these vulnerable young people would be a concern.”

A consultation on the proposals is open until 19 December.

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