Regressive approaches to sentencing will not help children or society

1 July 2021

The head of the Youth Justice Board has rightly criticised the Government’s plans to raise child custodial sentences. At a time when England and Wales falls behind most European countries in protecting children with the lowest age of criminal responsibility (10), it is inexplicable that the Government is taking a further regressive step by seeking to increase the length of time that children must spend in prison.

There are numerous issues with the Police, Crime and Sentencing Courts Bill not least its measures relating to children. Proposals to increase the use of mandatory minimum custodial sentences for 16 and 17 year-olds or to define 16 year-olds as “adults” for the purposes of extracting electronic data are wrong.

At a time when science is showing clearly that the development of the prefrontal cortex is not complete until at least 25, it is truly depressing to see the Government push through measures based on a Victorian idea of what children are and how they should be treated.

Children differ from adults in their physical and psychological development. Such differences constitute the basis for the recognition of lesser culpability, and for a separate system with a differentiated, individualized approach. Exposure to the criminal justice system has been demonstrated to cause harm to children, limiting their chances of becoming responsible adults.”

UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in its General Comment No. 24 on children’s rights in the child justice system.

We know that prison sentences do not help reduce reoffending. They do not help the children in their care and they do not help society as they exacerbate existing problems for the children that find themselves in the prison system.

This Bill is a backward step taking England and Wales towards further breaches of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Further information

For further information on the issues raised in this blog, please contact a member of our Youth Crime team. You can also find out more about the work our Youth Crime team cover by clicking here.


About the authors

Áine Kervick is an Associate in our Criminal Litigation team. She provides advice and representation to individuals and corporates from the initial stages of criminal investigations up to trial. She has extensive experience representing children and young people, particularly in relation to online and sexual offences arising out of “sexting” behaviour. She is committed to ensuring the relevant authorities recognise and respect the special rights afforded to children who find themselves within the criminal justice system. She is particularly interested in campaigning work in relation to the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales and improvements to the criminal records system for children and young people.

Sandra Paul is a Partner in our Criminal Litigation team. She has a wealth of experience in criminal and related litigation. The majority of her work concerns defending allegations of sexual misconduct. She works with clients in the UK and abroad, including allegations following the #MeToo campaign. She has a particular passion and aptitude for working with children and young adults, navigating them safely through the youth justice system. Youth crime is a specialist area in which Sandra is a leader in her field.


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