Police in Devon and Cornwall locking up an average of five children each week
A total of five children are locked up overnight in Devon and Cornwall Police cells each week, new figures have revealed.
The research by the Howard League for Penal Reform which is published today, shows that there were 285 overnight detentions of children aged 17 and under in police stations across the region during 2011.
The charity welcomed the reduction from 393 in 2010 to 285, but said the practice of locking children up should be abandoned altogether.
Superintendent Toby Davies, head of criminal justice at Devon and Cornwall Police, said there had been a substantial reduction in the numbers from the previous year.
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He said that keeping children in custody was done as a last resort.
“Spending the night in a police cell can be a very intimidating and daunting experience for a child and we try and avoid this happening where possible,” he said.
“There are times when it is the only option, for example to prevent crime, to stop an individual harming themselves or others and if we can’t locate a young person's parent or appropriate carer.
“Once they have been dealt with we do everything possible to ensure they do not remain with us overnight unless absolutely necessary.
“We are also working closely with partners to reduce the number of young people who enter the criminal justice system.”
Supt Davies said the number of children in custody had reduced for a variety of reasons, including the fact that more were being dealt with by restorative justice methods aimed at dealing with offending behaviour but without criminalising the child.
In Devon and Cornwall 2,032 young offenders under 17 were dealt with by restorative justice in 2010, 1,987 in 2011 and increasing to 2,640 in 2012.
Fewer children are also involved in criminal activity according to force statistics, said Supt Davies, dropping from 4,281 in 2009/10 to 3,557 in 2012/13.
Thor Beverley, area manager of the North and West Devon Youth Offending Team welcomed the decrease in the number of children locked up.
“We are very pleased to see the decrease in the numbers of children being held overnight in police custody. We work closely with the police to try and bring these numbers down and to reduce the numbers of children entering the criminal justice system.”
According to the Howard League across England and Wales was 40,716 – which equates to an average of 112 detentions per night.
However, the true number is likely to be far higher as some of the largest police services in the country were unable to provide figures.
Frances Crook, chief executive of the charity, said: “Holding children as young as ten in police cells overnight is unjustifiable.
“The vast majority of children who are locked up are innocent of any crime, and it is a frightening and intimidating experience which does more harm than good.
“It is encouraging to see that the number of detentions is falling nationwide, thanks in part to our successful campaigning.
“This is a victory for common sense, prudent use of police resources and improved community relations.
“But the number remains far too high and it is particularly worrying to see that practice varies widely from police service to police service.
“What boys and girls need in most cases is simply to go home. On rare occasions, somewhere safe – not somewhere secure – should be provided by the local authority.
“Parents, not police, should be taking responsibility for their children.
“Police are to be congratulated for the significant fall in the use of police cells in recent years.
“It is extravagantly expensive to detain children at a time of austerity, particularly when almost all of them are innocent, or have just been naughty and that behaviour can be dealt with quickly and safely by parents.”
The charity is calling for the practice of holding children overnight in police cells to be brought to an end altogether.
A briefing paper published by the charity also calls for the presumption of bail to be strictly applied to children, as well as pushing for all police to be trained in safeguarding and child protection.