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Author: David Scott

Why we should abolish imprisonment for children and young people

Updated Monday, 15 April 2019
Dr David Scott takes a look at the consequences of imprisoning children and young people, and the alternative solutions to this.

The experiences of children and young people in prison has failed to create the kind of scandal which might be expected in a modern, progressive and civilised society. Children are some of the most vulnerable members of our society, yet there seems to be both public and political acceptance of their incarceration, despite mounting evidence of its terribly harmful effects. Although the number of children in prison has fallen enormously since 2007, there were 861 children in custody in England and Wales in 2018, 43 children were aged 14 or younger.

We also need to situate this also within the context of social backgrounds of the children we imprison.


More than four out of 10 (46% of children in prison) were from BAME backgrounds in 2018. This is a significant rise in BAME child prisoners from 2007 when it was 24%. As there are relatively small numbers of children in custody, a small increase or decrease in the numbers of BAME children in custody can make a significant change to the overall figure, but in recent times BAME children have accounted for between 40%-50% of all children in prison.

It is also important to highlight that significant numbers of children in custody have drug problems, learning difficulties, mental health problems and have witnessed or experienced physical or sexual violence.

In the documentary ‘Why we should abolish imprisonment for children and young people’ Dr David Scott talks with three leading campaigners in the UK against the imprisonment of children and young people. Carolyn Willow is a leading children rights campaigner and the director of Article 39 and has argued against imprisoning children as both a practitioner and lobbyist. Janet Cunliffe is the mother of Jordan Cunliffe, who received a life sentence at the age of 15 and is the founder of the campaign group JENGbA (Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association). Liz Hardy was the mother of Jake Hardy, who took his own life in HMP/YOI Hindley in January 2012 and is a leading campaigner against child prisons.

Of the 28 different countries in the European Union in 2018, life imprisonment for children had been abolished in 22.

Child life sentences

A child prisoner includes children who are held in Secure Children Homes; Secure Training Centres and Young Offender Institutions (the later hold around 70% of all children in custody). 

From 2006 - 2016, 197 child life sentences were handed down. The average age of the person at the time of sentencing is 16 years, but life sentences have been handed down in this period to children as young as 13

Of the 28 different countries in the European Union in 2018, life imprisonment for children had been abolished in 22. There are currently four children serving life imprisonment outside of the United Kingdom in the EU today, and these are all in the Republic of Ireland[i]. There were an additional two child life sentences in France prior to 2018, but this country has now abolished child life sentences and the life sentences of the two children was successfully appealed in at least one, if not both, of these cases.

When prison takes life

The regimes experienced by young people and child prisoners as one of deliberate harm which leads to thousands of children being physically, psychologically and emotionally damaged every year.

According to data from INQUEST 80 people under 21 took their own lives in child prisons between 2007-2018 (with two deaths of young people awaiting classification) and in total 312 young people under the age of 21 have died in penal custody between 1990-2018.

Young people are emotionally vulnerable and more likely to find the loss of personal relationships on the outside harder to cope with than adults.

Coping with prison life is a tenuous, relative and fluid concept that ebbs and flows over time. The real pains of imprisonment are to be found in the denial of personal autonomy, feelings of time consciousness, and the lack of an effective vocabulary to express the hardship of watching life waste away. It is also clear that custody is experienced differently by young people. Young people are emotionally vulnerable and more likely to find the loss of personal relationships on the outside harder to cope with than adults. It has long been noted how suicidal ideation is heavily influenced by the nature of responses by significant others and the ‘end of hope’. Young people also have less life experience on which to rely to help to deal with problems associated with prison life, or to manage a suicidal impulse when things are looking bleak and hopeless.

Where do we go from here?

I would therefore like to make the following three brief conclusions:

  • Immediately abolish life imprisonment for children and look to house children who do serious wrongs in places of genuine care and safety;
  • Raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility immediately to 14 so that we match most other European Union Countries and call for an independent review to explore the possibility of raising this to 16 as soon as possible; and
  • Recognise that the pains of imprisonment are potentially deadly for children and young people, and therefore we need to think again about what we mean by child prison as a ‘last resort’.


Disclaimer: Please note the views expressed in this article and the video are those of the author and contributors, not those of The Open University.



[i] The 2018 information on child life sentence is derived from conversations with Children Rights International Network (CRIN) and an answer to a question asked by a TD in the Irish Dail.  Thanks to James Mehigan for sharing this.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessary reflect those of The Open University.


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