Children in custody have a high risk of poor health and self-harm

Sean's blogSean Duggan, chief executive, Centre for Mental Health

In their report released last week the Justice Committee called for legislation to make sure that only the most ‘prolific and dangerous’ young people are sentenced to custody. The report describes how looked after children are at a greater risk of being  ‘pulled into an express route into the criminal justice system’ because bad behaviour is dealt with by the police instead as, as is the case for most children, by their parents or carers.

The report also shows that young people who have been diverted away from formal criminal justice processes are much less likely to go on to serious and prolonged offending, and calls for the expansion of diversion services, which are currently patchy and inconsistent. Children who end up in custody are three times more likely to have a mental health problem than those who do not. Very often these children have many difficulties, including with speech, language and communication. And, shockingly, children in custody are eighteen times more likely to commit suicide than other children. Liaison and diversion services in police stations and courts mean that these young people can be identified quickly, and given care and treatment rather than costly custodial sentences.

It’s clear that the children who end up in custody are among the most vulnerable in society. Children with difficult family circumstances, who have seen domestic violence, been excluded from school, or who have spent time in care tend to ‘cluster’ in young offender institutions. It’s these children who are much more likely to self-harm. While the number of young people entering the criminal justice system has decreased in recent years, this report shows that too many of the most vulnerable young people are still being given custodial sentences instead of the care and treatment that they need.

Read the report  here.