UK youth justice system needs major overhaul, says Unicef report


Research by Unicef has found that the UK's youth justice system is breaching the human rights of young people and failing in its aims. The organisation has found that non-white children are over-represented, poor conditions in detention facilities, "widespread" use of practices such as "solitary confinement, tasers and spit-hoods," and problems with the age of criminal responsibility in all four UK nations (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales), which remains below the UN's recommended age of 14.

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Full report available here: Youth justice in the UK - A rights-based analysis (Unicef UK, link). Press release originally published here.

8 December 2020 – A new report from Unicef UK finds that the UK youth justice system is failing children and risks breaching their human rights. Key areas for concern identified within the report include the over representation of children from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds within the youth justice system, unsatisfactory conditions within youth detention, the wide spread use of in-humane practices such as solitary confinement, tasers, and spit-hoods, and the low ages of criminal responsibility across all four UK nations.

The report finds:

  • In the year ending March 2019, in England and Wales, Black children were over 4 times more likely to be arrested than white children.[1]
  • Data gathered from 29 police forces reveals that 51% of children who had tasers used on them in England were from a BAME background. [2]
  • In the year ending March 2019, in England and Wales, the proportion of Black children given a caution, or a sentence was nearly 3 times higher than the proportion of Black children in the 10-17 population.[3]
  • In 2017 HM Chief Inspector of Prisons said: “There was not a single establishment that we inspected in England and Wales in which it was safe to hold children and young people.”[4]

The four UK nations also have some of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in the world, where children as young as 10 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland can be charged with a criminal offence and processed within the criminal justice system. Scotland recently voted to increase their age of criminal responsibility from eight years to 12 years old – but this is still below the UN recommendation of at least 14 years old.

Anna Kettley, Deputy Executive Director of Programmes and Advocacy at Unicef UK said: ‘Children who come into contact with the law are some of the most vulnerable and marginalised in society, often they have been in the care system, experienced neglect or abuse and may have been excluded from school.

‘Our report finds that the youth justice system is failing in its duty to protect and uphold children’s human rights – to keep them safe and protect them from harm. We need a system that upholds their rights and gives every child who comes into contact with the law the opportunity to positively turn their life around.

The new report ‘A Rights-Based Analysis of Youth Justice in the United Kingdom’ is Unicef UK’s first in-depth look into the UK youth justice system, and reviews, from a child rights perspective, the contexts in which youth justice functions in each of the four UK nations. Whilst it finds that positive steps, like the significant reduction in the number of child arrests and children within the system, as well as the creation of ‘Outcome 21’ which reduces the criminalisation of children for sexting offences, have been made, there remain significant areas which do not meet international children’s rights standards. The report includes 45 recommendations for the UK government and devolved administrations to consider which include:

  • Raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least 14 years of age
  • Stopping the use of in-humane practises on children such as solitary confinement, tasers and spit-hoods
  • Committing to ensuring the anonymity of children who come into contact with the law and appear at court
  • Investing in research to better understand the true impact of diversion and how it relates to girls, BAME, school-excluded and care-experienced children

To mark the release of the report, Unicef UK will be holding two online panel sessions – one relating to England and Wales and the other to Scotland and Northern Ireland, which will bring together key stakeholders from civil society, academia and practice to discuss the key findings to emerge from the report.

To find out more about the report and panel events visit


Note to editors

[1] Ministry of Justice and Youth Justice Board (2020). Youth Justice Statistics 2018 to 2019. London: Ministry of Justice and Youth Justice Board. p.6

[2] CRAE (2019). State of Children’s Rights in England 2018. Policing and Criminal Justice. London: Children’s Rights Alliance for England.

[3] Ministry of Justice and Youth Justice Board (2020). Youth Justice Statistics: 2018 to 2019. London: Ministry of Justice and Youth Justice Board. p.16

[4] HM Chief Inspector of Prisons (2017). Annual Report 2016-17. London: HMCIP p.9

For more information, please contact: Unicef UK Media Team, 0207 375 6030,


UNICEF is the world’s leading organisation for children, promoting the rights and wellbeing of every child, in everything we do. Together with our partners, we work in 190 countries and territories to translate that commitment into practical action, focusing special effort on reaching the most vulnerable and excluded children, to the benefit of all children, everywhere.

Unicef UK raises funds to protect children in danger, transform their lives and build a safer world for tomorrow’s children. As a registered charity we raise funds through donations from individuals, organisations and companies and we lobby and campaign to keep children safe. Unicef UK also runs programmes in schools, hospitals and with local authorities in the UK.

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