People under the age of 18 in Scotland should only be jailed as a “last resort”, according to the country’s chief inspector of prisons.
Wendy Sinclair Gieben suggested that alternatives should be considered for young people.
But, she explained that those aged 16 and 17 who have committed heinous crimes would still need to be held in secure care.
The Scottish Government has said that responses to a consultation over proposed reforms will inform change in the law.
“I think we have to realise that there will be people under the age of 18 who commit heinous crimes and therefore they need to be in secure care,” Sinclair Gieben told BBC Scotland.
“But for everything else, moving a child into prison custody must be a last resort.”
She continued: “I’ve met too many children in here who are in here not as a last resort.
“Children who are in for seven days because they’ve got nowhere else to live, children who are in because they’re a protected witness.
“You know, we should not be doing that, we should be looking at alternatives.”
The Scottish Government has said there has already been a ‘huge reduction’ in the number of 16 and 17-year-olds sent to prison.
Justice secretary Keith Brown indicated that the government will be ‘actively looking’ at the proposals.
At the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday, MSPs were told of the case of one young person sent to Polmont because they did not appear as a court witness.
Megan Farr, policy officer for the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, was giving evidence to Holyrood’s Education, Children and Young People Committee.
“We’ve heard of one incidence of a child who was sent to Polmont for failing to appear as a witness in a court case,” she said.
“We’ve also heard of potential trafficking victims being remanded to Polmont, despite the fact that we have a non-prosecution presumption around victims of trafficking, let alone child victims of trafficking, in Scotland.”
Scottish Conservative justice spokesman Jamie Greene explained his party believe that in cases of murder, prison is “always the most appropriate punishment”.
He said: “The SNP’s failure to deal with the court backlog has led to young people being inappropriately held on remand.
“However, the Scottish Conservatives believe that in cases of murder – such as those involving child killers Aaron Campbell and Luke Mitchell – prison is always the most appropriate punishment.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson explained that it continues to support an agenda of keeping children out of the criminal justice system.
“The decision whether to keep someone under the age of 18 in custody is a matter for the independent courts,” they said.
“Building on excellent progress in recent years, this government continues to support an agenda of keeping children out of the criminal justice system by encouraging use of children’s hearings.
“And where a criminal justice response is required, allowing for alternatives to custody where possible and appropriate.”
They continued: “We have seen dramatic positive changes in the youth justice sector since our decisive shift towards prevention in 2007. The number of under 18s in custody is down by over 90%.
“The Scottish Government recently consulted on proposed reforms to ensure that remand is only ever used as a last resort.
“The responses to the consultation will inform legislative change in this area which will apply to all those who are accused of offences including under 18s being prosecuted.”
The spokesperson added: “Progress has been made with more needing to be done.
“Further legislation on bail law, release law and separately through a Children’s Care and Justice Bill are all actions designed to minimise the harm caused to children through use of the criminal justice system.
“Accepting that on occasion there will always be cases where a criminal justice response is required.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesman Liam McArthur warned of record overcrowding and spiralling rates of self-harm in the country’s prisons.
“This is a heavyweight intervention that poses serious challenges to the Scottish Government’s approach to locking up young people,” he said of the remarks made by Sinclair Gieben.
“Scotland’s criminal justice system has demonstrably failed young people, with the Children’s Commissioner even warning that it may breach international law.
“Increasing numbers of Scots are being held without a trial having taken place. These are people who haven’t been convicted, yet lengthy court delays are preventing them from having their cases heard and preventing victims from seeing justice done.
“Scottish prisons are seeing record overcrowding and spiraling rates of self-harm. Proper investment in bail supervision orders and electronic tagging could mean that remand is only used where it is necessary to safeguard communities and public safety.”
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