Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The criminal youth 'justice' system

One way to judge a country’s culture, it is said, is by the state of its penal system. On that basis, Britain comes somewhere near the bottom of so-called civilised nations. Today comes the news that the number of young people in custody in England and Wales has reached a record high. The Youth Justice Board, which administers the system, said it faced a "meltdown". Young offenders under 18 are being held hundreds of miles from their families in breach of regulations and being forced to share cells against their will – also against the rules – because of overcrowding. Anne Owers, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, commented: "I fear the system is approaching breaking point. And I am particularly concerned about the number of young people with mental illness who end up in our prisons because of the lack of adequate provision outside." The Youth Justice Board said the rise in numbers at young offenders' institutes had caused an increased risk of self-harm and suicide by youngsters.

What a criminal state of affairs this is. Nowhere in Western Europe jails more of its population than England and Wales, where 143 people per 100,000 are in prison. Since the start of 1993 the prison population has risen 90% - from 41,600 to more than 79,600 in autumn 2006. This is state-sponsored revenge against offenders, who mostly come from poorer and minority ethnic communities. This is punishment pure and simple, a kind of medieval-type of retribution enforced by the state under the direction of the New Labour government. As for rehabilitation – forget it. With prisons full to bursting point, there is no room for education or other initiatives.

A Howard League for Penal Reform report published earlier this year studied 86 offenders aged 18 to 20 in England and Wales. It said young men had high offending and re-offending rates but were largely ignored by initiatives to cut crime. Report author Finola Farrant said: "Sending these young men to prison does virtually nothing to ensure that they will live crime-free lives on release." She added that prison could make their re-offending "all the more predictable". More than 1,000 young men are sent to prison each month, and it costs £35,000 a year to keep them inside, said the Howard League. But its study - called Out For Good - claimed little constructive work took place in prisons or on release, and that nearly 70% of those released from prison would be re-convicted within two years. New Labour’s response to the prisons’ crisis? Launch a search for disused ships to lock even more people up. And try to merge the independent Prison Inspectorate out of existence so that it can’t issue any more embarrassing reports. The House of Lords recently rejected this plan by a huge majority but the government says it will reinstate the scrapping of the inspectorate when the proposals reach the House of Commons. The fact is that any independent inspection of the Blair government would surely conclude that it is a brutal, inhumane and reactionary regime and that for society’s sake it should be shut down sooner rather than later.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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