'PRISONS 'PRISONS ACTING AS COLLEGES OF CRIME' Borough Has Highest Teen Imprisonment Rate in England and Wales but Experts Fear System Is Ineffective

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Byline: Claire Miller

ONE in every 130 16 and 17-year-olds in Merthyr Tydfil was locked up in 2009/10 - the highest rate in England and Wales.

In comparison, in Pembrokeshire, which had the lowest rate, just one in 6,000 teens was given a custodial sentence, according to Youth Justice Board (YJB) figures.

Youths in Merthyr Tydfil are more likely to be imprisoned than those living in Manchester or the London boroughs of Lambeth, Southwark or Hackney.

Cardiff, with the next highest rate in Wales, sends one in 317 16 and 17-year-olds to jail.

A charity has said that with unacceptably high reconviction rates for the age group, prisons were acting as colleges of crime.

Penelope Gibbs, director of the Prison Reform Trust's Out of Trouble programme, said: "Merthyr Tydfil has the highest use of custody for under 18-year-olds in England and Wales, higher than any inner city area.

"Although youth crime is a problem in Merthyr, we are concerned that such consistently high levels of imprisonment are neither fair nor effective.

"One look at the unacceptably high reconviction rates for this age group reveals that, too often, prison acts as a college of crime."

Senior lecturer in criminology and criminal justice at the University of Wales, Newport, John Deering, said there were a number of factors, from poverty, unemployment and housing issues, to individual choices, but the culture of the courts in the area was known to be important.

He said: "The courts are very inconsistent across the country. Merthyr has a bit of a reputation for being a bit of a punitive region."

A report by crime prevention charity Nacro Cymru, commissioned by the Welsh Government, suggests magistrates in Merthyr Tydfil may be tougher than those in other areas.

The report said: "Magistrates had strong views about the local community.

A recurring theme in the interviews with them was the indication that certain behaviours will not be tolerated and those that transgress will be made an example of. "Although it is difficult to make firm connections, this may well play a part in sentencing decisions."

The situation may have worsened in 2009/10, with the report pointing to a noticeably shorter history from first conviction to custody and less chance of receiving repeat community sentences than those from 2007/8. It found offending by young people in Merthyr had been on a clear upward trajectory since 2009/10, adding that the reasons for this were unclear. The number of violent offences has also been rising, but is still lower than the national average.

A Welsh Government spokeswoman said the report was commissioned to explore why some localities had higher than average rates of custody, work identified as a priority under the All Wales Youth Offending Strategy Delivery Plan 2009-11, and was also a recommendation of the Communities and Culture Committee Inquiry report.

She said: "Youth justice is not devolved to Wales. …