Headlines: April 17th, 2009

A joint initiative between the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Local Government Association has seen a striking drop in the number of children being sentenced to custody. The partners say the pilot in North Hampshire shows how improvements in the services provided for individual children means they can be supported safely in the community.

The annual custody figures in the area showed a 42 per cent drop in the numbers of children being sentenced to prison since the pilot custody panel was introduced. Last year 45 children were sent to prison compared with 78 given custodial sentences the year before.

Under the joint initiative, a custody panel was set up in September 2007 to look at the cases of all children under 18 sentenced to custody. It brought together representatives of the Youth Offending Team, Children’s Services and the voluntary sector to review each case to see if action might have been taken to avoid custody and to give feedback to those working on the cases. The panel also sought to inform and improve practice among all agencies relating to the use of youth custody.

Following its success the panel is expanding its focus to include children remanded into custody as well. Its work is part of a larger initiative in the North Hampshire area, which is trying to extend the use of intensive fostering for children at risk of custody.

The Howard League briefing paper, “Custody panels: Impact of a pilot on juvenile sentencing rates”, is available at www.howardleague.org. The League’s campaign on children in the penal system has recommended similar panels are introduced in every local authority area. Frances Crook, the League’s Director, said: “We are delighted that this pilot initiative has had such promising results after only one year of operation. More local authorities should consider using custody panels to improve their work with troubled children.”