Child arrests down again

Work with Offenders profiles a successful campaign by the Howard League for Penal Reform and work with police forces on issues which arise out of children in residential care

The Howard League for Penal Reform has been running a large-scale programme designed to reduce the number of children arrested since 2010.

There is a consensus amongst experts that involving children in the criminal justice system should be avoided whenever possible. On the whole, troubled young children need support rather than punishment and putting lots of young people who are involved in crime together often tends to reinforce their identity as a troublemaker or “wrong ‘un”.

The scale of the reduction in the number of child arrests is staggering. In 2010, 245,763 children were arrested in England and Wales. The Howard League has just published its annual update on the campaign with last year’s figures in which just 70,078 children were arrested – that’s a reduction of 71%. The campaign has maintained its momentum over the years; last year’s figure was a substantial reduction on the previous year’s of 79,012 child arrests.

The positive consequences of this reduction are clear to see – the number of children in prison fell by more than 63% between 2010 and 2018 as fewer children were drawn into the penal system.

This has been a practical campaign – the Howard League has not run a public information campaign complaining about the iniquities of children being arrested but has worked closely in partnership with police services across England and Wales to change practice and policy.

One area of success has been the focus on the criminalisation of children living in residential care. Police forces often receive high levels of callouts from some children’s homes, many of which they regard as inappropriate. Not only does this have often inappropriate consequences for the children involved, but it is incredibly expensive for police. One police force told the Howard League that it would be cheaper to place an officer on the door of one of the most demanding children’s homes in their area on a full-time basis, rather than responding individually to each call from the home.

Another police force told the Howard League that they had been called out because a child had squirted a member of staff with water. Police in another area were called out about a boy who pulled down a curtain.

Many of the calls the police are receiving from children’s homes relate to missing incidents rather than alleged crimes. Forces take their safeguarding duties extremely seriously and want to improve responses to missing incidents for children who are at risk of harm. There has been criticism, however, for call-outs where the safe location of the child was known to staff at children’s homes.

The head of the missing persons unit in one force summarised some of the issues: the police are frequently called very early to homes in circumstances which resolve themselves; they are often asked to pick children up from known locations; they have been called out for children who are known to be on the bus on the way home but are running a bit late; some children are allowed out some days but not others which frustrates them and the police find they are getting called out on the days the children are supposed to stay in. Often police are used as a “taxi service” because there aren’t enough care home staff on duty for one of them to go out and pick up an absent child.

The solutions to this problem are not difficult to implement. At a policy level, many police forces have started to adopt a child-focused approach which looks to address failings in the care system and provide an appropriate response to vulnerable children, rather than criminalise them unnecessarily.

Many forces have assigned named officers (often known as single points of contact or “SPOCs”) to individual care homes. A more personal relationship between police and specific homes has opened up opportunities for the police to highlight problems, provide training, advise on behaviour management and recommend protocols and systems around whether to call out police.

Again, the campaign is proving effective. The proportion of children being criminalised while living in residential care has come down from 15% in 2014 (when the Howard League started this part of their programme) to 10% last year.

Despite these successes, the work is not complete yet. In this most recent report, the Howard League identify three groups of children who are still being disproportionately – and unnecessarily – criminalised: children living in residential care; child victims of criminal exploitation, including in particular by criminals operating “county lines” drug dealing operations and children from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.

For this reason, the campaign is ongoing.

Nevertheless, with all the current gloom around our failing prison and probation systems, it makes a refreshing change to report on such a successful initiative.