The claim

“Youngsters who are imprisoned tend to re-offend upon release; the re-offending rates remaining above 70 per cent in the United Kingdom.

“Arrest, detention and imprisonment are in principle possible for minors above the minimum age of criminal responsibility, but should only be used as a measure of last resort and for the shortest period possible.”

Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, letter to the Justice Secretary, 29 February 2012

The background

The United Kingdom is locking up her children too young and too often – and it’s not helping to rehabilitate them, says Europe’s human rights watchdog.

Ticking us off for being “excessively punitive”, the Commissioner has called for the age of criminal responsibility to be raised from 10 in the UK to the European average of 15.

The Ministry of Justice hasn’t reviewed the minimum age since the 1960s. But does it need to?

FactCheck wonders if raising the age would have much of an impact on the rate of reoffending, or on the number of under-15s who are currently guests of Her Majesty.

The analysis

The number of youths that received sentences for offences fell back by 25 per cent between 2001 and 2011 to 35,498. The overwhelming majority – almost 26,000 – were given fines.

Meanwhile, number of kids being sentenced to immediate custody has almost halved over the same period to 2,453 – and in 2011 they made up 7 per cent of all young offenders.

The average sentence length however has increased slightly over that decade – from 6.6 months to 7.6 months.

Kids in custody

The UK’s juvenile jailbirds (those aged 10-17) made up 2.5 per cent of our entire prison population in 2009.  Ours outstrips the European mean of 1.3 per cent, according to the Council of Europe, and is beaten by only a handful of countries – all with tiny populations: Andorra, Armenia, Malta and Moldova (2.9, 2.6, 3.4, 4.3 per cent respectively).

Though then there’s France, which at 8.2 per cent has the highest percentage of juvenile prisoners in Europe by far. The minimum age of responsibility for French children is 13.

Yet our Justice Secretary told the Commissioner the UK “has no current plans” to reconsider the age of criminal responsibility and insisted that custodial sentences were already considered the “last resort for the most serious and persistent offenders”.

FactCheck notes that the Commissioner has in the past also pressed upon France, the Netherlands, Ireland and Azerbaijan to address their lower ages of responsibility too.

According to Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures, in January this year there were 1,969 under-18s behind bars in England and Wales – that’s 28 per cent less than there were in 2000/01.

Plus as the graphic shows, just 4.5 per cent of them, or 89, were under the age of 15. The youngest juvenile in custody in the UK this January was 12 years old.


Taking these kids into custody isn’t working said the Commissioner. And he’s right – 72 per cent reoffended within the first year of leaving custody, according to latest MoJ statistics from the first quarter of 2009.

Though it’s worth pointing out that this is down from 76 per cent in 2000.

Plus we note that the rate of re-offending for all juveniles was 37 per cent in 2009 – half that of those in custody. This rate has also decreased since 2000, by 3 per cent.

The verdict

Though the Commissioner wants the UK to increase the minimum age from 10 to 15, there are a very small number of under-15s currently in custody, and overall the number of under-18s in custody is down by almost a third in 11 years.

There was only one 12 year old in custody in January in England and Wales,  and no one any younger than that. Under-15s accounted for just 89 of those in custody – and 75 of them were 14 year olds.

They made up a tiny number of the total 1,969 juveniles held in custody for their sins.

However, these youths in custody do make up 2.5 per cent of the total UK prison population which is very high by European standards (excluding France’s shocking rate of 8.2 per cent).

And the Commissioner is right to point out their high re-offending rate; though it has decreased in recent years to 72 per cent, it is much higher than the 37 per cent re-offending rate of those that didn’t go into custody, but were faced with fines or community work instead.

By Emma Thelwell