Children in custody held in conditions resembling solitary confinement during the pandemic

Black and white photo of a boy crying
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The Alliance for Youth Justice (AYJ) has published a damning report revealing the “devastating” impacts of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic on children in the youth justice system. The AYJ’s wide-ranging findings include safeguarding concerns, youth offending institutions depriving children of education and contact with their families – “amounting to solitary confinement”  – and delays in court proceedings. The report argues that marginalised and disadvantaged children and young people continue to bear the brunt of worsening conditions in England and Wales’ youth justice system.

Children’s rights issues

The AYJ highlights “safeguarding concerns” for all children as a result of lockdown measures, suggesting that the state and its institutions have failed to prioritise children’s rights in their response to the pandemic. It adds that children in the youth justice system – particularly those from marginalised and disadvantaged backgrounds – have felt the consequences of this most sharply.

The report shows “a consistent theme about the lack of information, understanding and focus on children during the pandemic”.  It adds that the government “has often failed to distinguish between its approach to adults and children” in the justice system.

Highlighting that disadvantaged and marginalised children and young people have ‘suffered most’, AYJ director Pippa Goodfellow said that as a result of the pandemic:

Children’s exposure to abuse, exploitation and violence have continued or increased, while the capacity of services has been severely impeded. 

A system ‘struggling to cope’

In particular, the AYJ draws attention to the entire youth justice system’s inadequate response to the pandemic. Highlighting the urgent need for measures to reduce the number of children entering the youth carceral state, it sets out that:

From decisions to arrest, divert or prosecute children in the community, to remand and sentencing, there was a clear need identified to work to reduce the number of children passing through a system that is struggling to cope.

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It also points out that although the overall number of children in custody has reduced, the proportion of children on remand has risen. The report adds that organisations have criticised “unambitious custody release schemes… for being completely ineffective”.

The AYJ further raises concerns that delays in courts are making it difficult for children to receive timely charging decisions, leaving many in limbo. Indeed, as of November 2020, backlogs in the youth courts had almost doubled as a result of lockdown closures. It adds that although the pandemic has exacerbated delays, this “should be seen in the context of a system already under severe strain”. This comes after a report by the Youth Justice Legal Centre (YJLC) explaining that delays in charging and court hearings due to coronavirus are leading to more children being tried in adult courts upon turning 18.

The AYJ sets out that most children in custody have experienced “awful conditions for months on end”. It explains that institutions have deprived many children of the “education, visits and contact” they are entitled to, “amounting to solitary confinement”. The AYJ is calling on institutions to ‘assess and support’ children’s physical, mental and emotional health as a result of this limited social contact.

Towards a collaborative approach

Calling for urgent action across children’s services to prevent a further increase in the negative impacts on the pandemic on the most vulnerable children, Goodfellow concluded:

Concerted, coordinated action, with significant investment will be required to mitigate the negative consequences for children in the youth justice system, and to prevent criminalising vulnerable children who have experienced the most devastating harms of the pandemic.

The AYJ’s damning report reflects the numerous calls from youth justice and children’s rights organisations urging the government to prioritise children’s rights and transform all youth systems and services in England and Wales. Campaigners have warned that factors in the education system, such as the increasing presence of police in schools and continued excessive and disproportionate school exclusions, will work to further streamline the UK’s school-to-prison pipeline.

Others have highlighted that new Knife Crime Prevention Orders will support further expansion of the youth carceral state. And that plans set out in the government’s proposed draconian Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will likely further expand the UK’s youth prison population. Proposed measures include ‘secure schools’ and harsher sentences for children and young people who are in trouble with the law. Many anticipate that – once more – marginalised and disadvantaged children and young people will bear the brunt of these punitive measures.

Featured image via Kat J/Unsplash

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