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Lengthy sentencing for children and young people risks breaching human rights law

23 September 2021

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has called on the Government to reverse proposals that would see longer prison sentences for some crimes committed by children.

While welcoming measures that would see fewer children placed in custody whilst awaiting trial, the Committee warns that measures designed to increase the use of mandatory sentences for children and which will extend the time children who commit serious offences spend behind bars could contravene human rights law. The Committee urges the Government to amend its draft legislation to ensure that prison remains the option of last resort for children, that where imprisonment is found to be necessary it is for the shortest appropriate period and that rehabilitation and reform remains at the heart of sentencing.

The findings come in a report published today by the Joint Committee on Human Rights following legislative scrutiny of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and the Bill’s impact on the sentencing and remand of children and young people.

The Committee calls on the Government to amend the bill so that it reflects the rights guaranteed in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Proposed limits to the ability of judges to deviate from mandatory minimum sentences for 16 and 17 year olds should be withdrawn. Starting points for setting tariffs for Detention during Her Majesty’s Pleasure, where a child offender is sentenced to remain in prison until it is safe for them to be released, should not be increased beyond the existing 12-year limit.

The Government has noted that the provisions of the bill will have a disproportionate impact on Black and minority ethnic children. It claims that the goal of improving the protection of the public is a legitimate aim and measures within the bill proportionate, therefore it would not breach the European Convention on Human Rights. Evidence heard over the course of the inquiry casts doubt that the measures will achieve this aim and therefore questions remain over compatibility with the ECHR. The Joint Committee is particularly concerned that, despite recognising the disproportionate impact the proposals are likely to have, measures have not been developed to mitigate them. The Committee suggests one such measure could be the recording of youth court proceedings to better enable any discrimination in sentencing to be uncovered.

The Committee finds that proposals to extend whole life orders to offenders aged between 18 and 20 would effectively remove the possibility that reform and rehabilitation could offer a chance of freedom. This comes dangerously close to a contravention of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and should be removed from the Bill.

Other provisions in the Bill are welcomed by the Committee. Changes to the use of remand would encourage courts to impose custodial remand only where absolutely necessary. The statutory duty to consider the welfare of the child and requirement on the courts to provide reasons for why a child has been remanded to custody will also assist in ensuring that fewer children will be held in prison whilst awaiting trial.

Chair's comments

“The legislation takes the right approach in its reforms to custodial remand, ensuring that it is used only in the rarest cases for children awaiting trial. This should serve as a template for its broader approach to the incarceration of children and young people.

In removing judicial discretion to deviate from minimum sentencing guidelines and in increasing the length of sentences there is a risk of failing to recognise that even child offenders are still children, whose welfare must remain a priority. We urge the Government to revise this Bill to ensure that it provides the scope to allow sentencing that reflects the individual circumstances of those convicted.”

Further information

Image: Gabriel Sainhas