Criminal justice and policing

Our work in this area focuses on making sure that the criminal justice system respects children’s rights. Children are not mini-adults. The UN bodies, which enforce human rights standards, have recognised that they must be treated differently because of their unique situation – children have distinct vulnerabilities, greater developmental needs and evolving capacities. This, when combined with the reality of having less power than adults, and often not being taken seriously, means they must be treated differently when they come into contact with the criminal justice system.

We have three key priorities in this area which have been informed by Just for Kids Laws direct practice and key child rights concerns.

1. Police use of force - Taser use on children

In 2016, when the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child last examined the UK on how well it is meeting it children's rights obligations, it made a clear recommendation that the use of Taser on children should be prohibited because of concerns of its impact on children’s physical and mental health.

Yet the use of Taser on children continues to increase. By ‘use’ we mean in all instances where a Taser can be deployed, for example, this could be aiming a Taser at a child or partially activating it so that a laser red dot is placed onto the child, as well as when the Taser is fired. The latest annual figures show police forces in England and Wales used Tasers against children 2,091 times, including 6 times against under-11s. Of this number, 122 were discharged, which includes 1 discharge on a child under 11. Taser is also used disproportionately on Black children.

Our briefing provides an overview of children’s rights and the use of Tasers by police.  It sets out the serious concerns over their increased use on children, the specific risks to children, and the disproportionate use on Black children and other minority ethnic groups.

CRAE wants the use of Taser on children to be eliminated. Failing that, there should be a strong presumption against their use on under 18s. Urgent action must be taken to protect children’s safety and well-being and respect their rights. The police say Tasers can help them to protect the public and officers, but this must not come at the cost of children’s safety and human rights.

2. Timely Justice:  Turning 18 in the criminal justice system

The consequence of a child turning 18 during the criminal justice process can be serious and potentially life changing: They are dealt with more severely, lose the protections they would have received as children (such as automatic anonymity), are no longer able to receive child-specific sentences and face lengthier rehabilitation periods creating greater barriers to pursuing education and employment.  The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has been clear that children who have been accused of a crime they committed as a child should benefit from the protection of the youth justice system even if they turn 18 before their case is complete.

There is no official data published on this issue, but estimates we have been given from the Youth Justice Board indicate that each year around two-three thousand young people turn 18 before their case is completed. This figure is likely to increase given the growing backlog of court cases, as a result of thew Covid 19 pandemic, and widespread concern that the forthcoming increase in police numbers will lead to more children and young people entering the criminal justice system.  

Just for Kids Law has been working on this issue since 2018, due to our work, and the spotlight on court delays caused by Covid, this issue is now much more widely understood. We have also secured support for change from a wide variety of stakeholders and influential bodies - the Justice Select Committee made a clear recommendation for Government action on this issue; Rob Butler MP tabled a Ten-Minute Rule Bill on Turning 18; and it was raised in both the House of Commons and House of Lords during the parliamentary passage of the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act.

However, despite these positive developments, much more needs to be done to convince the Government to take action to address this clear injustice.

Read our briefing, Timely Justice: Turning 18, which analyses the inequities that arise for children who turn 18 between offence and prosecution and makes proposals for policy and practice reform.

3. Overnight police detention

Tens of thousands of children are held overnight in a police cell every year, despite the Children Act 2004 placing a statutory duty on police and local authorities to have regard to the safety, welfare, and well-being of children. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (link to page on CRC) also states that children should only be held in detention as a matter of last resort and for the shortest possible time.  Police cells are an inappropriate place for children, yet large numbers of children continue to spend a night or more in police custody causing them fear, anxiety, and distress. We are calling for an end to this traumatic practice.

Our latest report "It’s horrible when they keep you in there at night”: Ending the overnight detention of children in police custody” finds that despite an overall decrease in the number of children detained in police custody overnight in recent years (in line with the reduction in child arrests and numbers of first-time entrants to the youth justice system), serious failures to safeguard children are still taking place:

  • In 2019, at least 21,369 children were detained overnight in police custody either pre- or post-charge, a third of all those arrested.
  • 244 children aged 12 and under were held overnight and 9 children held overnight were just 10 years of age. As only a minority of forces provided data for the youngest children, the actual figure is likely to be higher.
  • In one case in 2021, a 16-year-old boy was detained for 5 days following a warrant being issued for his arrest.
  • Black children are disproportionately detained in police custody overnight - 21.7% (4,193), with a total of 15% (2,893) from other minority ethnic backgrounds.