Saturday, 16 May 2009

Putting children in gaol

Merthyr, as I was informed back in the 1960s in a lecture on the industrial history of Wales, was, for a period in the 19th century, the largest town in the Principality. In consequence, a "constant stream of employment seekers were drawn to Merthyr Tydfil from all parts of Britain and the continent. However, there was not enough work for everyone and many hundreds of people, unable or unwilling to return to whence they came, stayed on in the hope of a change in their fortune, only to be forced to resort to begging, thieving and lawlessness to eke out a living. In addition, professional vagrants, beggars, bullies, thieves, swindlers and prostitutes were also attracted to Merthyr to prey on its burgeoning population" ( The district of "China" became notorious.

Herbert Gladstone, son of the Grand Old Man and Home Secretary in Campbell-Bannerman's and Asquith's Liberal administrations in the early years of last century, agreed to the formation of a separate police force for Merthyr. The change seems to have been effective for the fifty years of the force's existence, before it was merged into what was to become the South Wales Constabulary,

Now Merthyr is making the headlines for an opposite reason, the number of children put in prison. Merthyr tops the table of youth custody rates at 12.6%, almost 1% ahead of Liverpool. Another South Wales authority, Bridgend, comes in twelfth at 10.1%, ahead of Lambeth, Manchester and Nottingham.

Too many children nationally are imprisoned. Alex Carlile QC (Lord Carlile of Berriew) says that the current number of children in custody is "a national disgrace".

According to the Independent, the Prison Reform Trust says that despite the official policy of jailing children only in exceptional circumstances, many children in jail have not committed serious or violent offences. At least one third are locked up for non-violent crimes like breaking Asbos or theft. In 2006, 286 children were imprisoned for motoring offences, 192 for drug offences, 26 for fraud and forgery and two for drunkenness.

We are building up trouble for the future in Bridgend and Merthyr. As Chris Huhne said in his conference speech last year: "if you put a young man into prison for the first time, there is a 92 per cent chance he will offend again. Our prisons are colleges of crime."

No comments: