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Monday 1st of June 2020

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IJJO Interviews- Ms. Frances Cook. Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform. United Kingdom.

Thursday 18th of April 2013 | National, United Kingdom

Ms. Cook introduces us in the penal English system where children are submitted to hard conditions in custody. She dismantles us a very authoritarian and punishable model that doesn’t contemplate the psychological, social and educative children specific needs for that the disturbing self-injuring, death and recidivism data in custody reduce. She also advocates the reduction of the age in which it is criminally liable from 10 to 14 years old and remembers us that the Convention of the UN says that custody should only be used for the shortest possible time.

Frances Crook was appointed Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform in 1986. She has been responsible for research programmes and campaigns to raise public concern about suicides in prison, the over-use of custody, poor conditions in prison, young people in trouble, and mothers in prison. She writes articles for the national media and does interviews on radio and television. Frances was awarded an OBE for services to youth justice in the 2010 New Year Honours List.She was appointed a Senior Visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics in 2010.


Dear Mrs. Crook, according to the official statistics of the Ministry of Justice for England and Wales 2012, 23 children died in custody and the incidents of self-harm have increased with 21 % since 2010. In your opinion, what is the reason behind these worrying data? What factors are preventing detention facilities from ensuring safety of children held there?

Prisons are unsafe places for children, with low staffing ratios and regimes that replicate adult jails.  They use punishment excessively including painful restraints, solitary confinement and strip searching children.  The activity is limited and many boys hardly ever go outside.  It is therefore no surprise that abuse, boredom, fear and violence trigger self-injury.

It is a common and unfortunate trend, that instead of receiving appropriate treatment, young offenders suffering from mental health issues; alcohol and drug addiction and children having themselves been victims of violence, are often sentenced to custody. What are the others measures available in UK for these children and if it does not exist what should be the adequate response for these young offenders?

They should be seen as children first and foremost.  The Howard League recommends that the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales should be raised to 14 (from 10) so that no child young than that could be dealt with in the criminal justice system.  Then for 14 to 17 year olds the first response should be based on child welfare and wellbeing.  All child jails should be closed and the very few children who require containment because of the seriousness of their behavior could be held in small local authority run units.

In cases where detention is inevitable, what type of safeguards should there be in place in order to prevent self-harm tendencies and other violent incidents?

The UN convention says that custody should only be used for the shortest possible time, so any child held in a secure unit should be released into appropriate support including family therapy, educational support, safe housing and any treatment for mental health or other health issue they need.  The important point is that children need to be helped to lead a good and useful, crime free life, for their sake and for ours.

In addition, data show that 36 % of 18-year-olds in conflict with the law eventually reoffend. What is your explanation for this trend and its recent increase? What are the successful strategies which reduce reoffending?

I think the reoffending rate is actually much higher than this for young people who are sent to jail, more like 60 to 70% for young people.  It has been steady for years.  The system in UK for responding to children who cause trouble is highly punitive, elongated, incomprehensible, and ignores their needs.

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