“The United Kingdom juvenile justice system should focus more on rehabilitation”

Strasbourg, 15/03/2012 – “Despite some progress, the system of juvenile justice in the United Kingdom remains excessively punitive. The state’s response to juvenile crime should focus more on rehabilitation” stated Thomas Hammarberg, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, in releasing a letter addressed to the UK Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Kenneth Clarke.

“The relative ease with which children are put in custody raises questions as to the compatibility of this approach with the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child” said the Commissioner.

“This approach is counter-productive. Youngsters who are imprisoned tend to re-offend upon release; the re-offending rates remaining above 70% in the United Kingdom. Arrest, detention and imprisonment are in principle possible for minors above the minimum age of criminal responsibility, but should only be used as a measure of last resort and for the shortest period possible. Alternatives to imprisonment should be sought in order to improve the response to juvenile crime and violence.” The Commissioner referred to some promising developments mentioned in the Lord Chancellor’s reply to his letter and encouraged the authorities to continue their efforts to improve this situation.

The very low age at which children could be subject to criminal procedures remains a serious concern. The Commissioner recommends that the Government considerably increase the age of criminal responsibility to bring it to a minimum of 15 years, which is the average level in the rest of Europe.

Children accused of breaching Anti-Social Behaviour Orders are still dealt with in criminal courts. “Children should not be imprisoned as a result of breaching a civil order. The authorities should adopt alternative approaches.” The Commissioner hopes that the ongoing consultation process, referred to in the reply of the Lord Chancellor, will resolve this problem by ensuring that the breach of a civil order no longer leads to a criminal sanction.

The Commissioner is also concerned by the fact that the separation of juveniles from adult offenders is not always ensured in Northern Ireland. “The recommendation of the Criminal Justice Inspection for Northern Ireland to move all children from Hydebank Wood Young Offenders Centre by April 2012 should be implemented. This is all the more necessary in the light of reports indicating that the mental health and educational needs of children are not met in that institution.”

Children in Northern Ireland are also disproportionately targeted by stop and search operations by the police. “Minors have been searched 2 500 times in the second half of 2011 alone. This trend risks weakening the trust between law enforcement bodies and citizens, including children. A review of this policy is therefore necessary.”

Lastly, the Commissioner calls for stronger protection of the privacy of young suspects, preventing cases of vilification of children in the press and avoiding the disclosure of criminal records, which have potentially grave consequences on a young person’s opportunities in life.

The letter is a follow up on the Commissioner’s Memorandum to the UK on the rights of the child, as well as on his recent visit to the United Kingdom, which included meetings in Northern Ireland.

Read the reply of the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Press contact in the Commissioner’s Office:
Stefano Montanari, +33 (0)6 61 14 70 37; stefano.montanari@coe.int

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