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New guidelines on arresting children only make sense if officers use them

By Caroline Liggins, criminal defence lawyer from London law firm Hodge Jones & Allen

“Every week, I and numerous other criminal defence lawyers, battle with the police and custody sergeants to ensure that children taken into police custody are properly treated.

The current statutory obligations clearly state that any child arrested and charged should not be held overnight but instead bailed and allowed to go home to await trial or, if they haven’t yet been charged, released on police bail to return the next day. If home is not appropriate, then a local authority place of safety.

It’s a conversation that lawyers have all too often in police stations around 10 o’clock at night because it simply doesn’t happen and too many children are unnecessarily held overnight, even for a whole weekend, in cells that are hardly fit for purpose.

Although not the most up-to-date, the current research by the Howard League for Penal Reform from 2013 found that 40,716 children under the age of 17 were held overnight in police cells in 2011, including 2,292 children aged 10 to 13. There’s no reason to believe that things have improved massively over the past few years.

An agreement published yesterday by the Home Office and signed by 87 top-tier local authorities and 24 out of 39 English police forces identifies that although the bar to justify detention of children after charge is currently “very high”, the intended threshold is not always met.

These guidelines are part of the growing perception that our current methods of youth custody and rehabilitation are simply not working and let down those who arguably need the most help.”