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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Sexual Abuse of Children in Custodial Institutions: 2009-2017 Investigation Report

B.1: The children in custody

1. The age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales is 10. Children aged 10 or over may be charged and detained in custody, both on remand and after being sentenced. In criminal justice legislation, the word ‘child’ sometimes refers to a person under 14 and ‘young person’ to a person who is 14 to 17.[1] However, the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference define a ‘child’ as being any person under 18, which is the terminology we have used throughout this investigation.[2]

2. The number of children in custody has declined considerably since mid‐2008, from over 3,000 to fewer than 900 children.[3] At July 2018, there were 883 children in custody.[4]

3. This reduction in numbers has led to significant changes in the characteristics of the population, in that those who have committed less ‘serious’ offences or who have less extensive criminal histories are now less likely to receive a custodial sentence.[5] Changes in the prison demographic mean that there is now a higher proportion of children in custody who have committed a serious crime, in particular a violent or sexual offence.[6] For example, Ministry of Justice statistics show that the proportion of children in custody for sexual offences increased from 5 percent in the year ending March 2011 to 10 percent in the year ending March 2016.[7] However, children can be placed in secure children’s homes (SCHs) on welfare grounds as well as on remand or under sentence, as explained below.

4. Statistics from July 2018 indicate that, of the 883 children in custody, 348 had been sentenced to a Detention and Training Order[8] (DTO), 246 were on remand, 233 had been sentenced under section 91[9] of the Powers of Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000 and 56 had been given other sentences.[10]

5. The most recent published figures for sentence length are for the year ending March 2017: 57 percent were up to 3 months, 20 percent were 3–6 months, 9 percent 6–9 months, 6 percent 9–12 months and 8 percent more than 12 months.[11] The median length of time a child spends in custody, whether on remand or in custody, is 90 nights.[12]

6. The changes in the demographic have practical consequences for the youth custodial estate. As indicated in the REA, there are now proportionally more children in custody with ‘challenging behaviours’ who may present significant risk to themselves and to others.[13] The literature also suggests children in custody are now typically more vulnerable and disadvantaged. The Howard League and others have pointed out that, as young offender institutions (YOIs) accommodate the majority of children who offend, children deemed more vulnerable may now be in YOIs, rather than the smaller secure training centres (STCs) or SCHs.[14]

7. These themes were confirmed by the witnesses. Sara Robinson described the current youth custody estate as including a “concentration of highly complex, high-needs young people” who pose “a risk of harm to others”.[15] Peter Savage similarly referred to the cohort of children in custody as “very challenging and complex young people”.[16]

8. We do not underestimate the difficulties of safely managing and caring for this group of challenging yet vulnerable children, some of whom may be violent to staff and other children.

9. As the REA[17] sets out, the profile of the children in custody is varied:

  • The population of white children in custody has decreased over the last 10 years disproportionately compared to the black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) population. By March 2017, children from a BAME background made up around 43 percent of the population of children under 18 in custody.

  • Prior experience of abuse, including sexual abuse, and neglect is common among children in custody. Around four in 10 children in the youth secure estate have previously been in local authority care. Many come from backgrounds of general social or economic disadvantage.

  • The prevalence of mental health problems within the population of the youth secure estate is significant.

  • Girls make up a very small proportion of children in custody – around 3 percent in March 2017. However, the health needs of girls in the youth secure estate are more complex than the needs of boys, and girls have higher rates of co‐morbidity, self‐harm and attempted suicide.


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