The number of minors behind bars in England and Wales fell by 58% and child arrests by more than 60% in the past six years, figures released by the Howard League for Penal Reform reveal, as authorities choose to use alternatives to prison when tackling young offenders.
Police arrested 87,525 under-17s in 2016, a 64% decrease compared with 2010, when almost 250,000 children were arrested. Of those arrested during 2016, 703 were children at primary school, aged 10 or 11, a significant reduction compared with the previous year when 830 under-12s were held by police.
The arrests of girls fell at a faster rate than arrests of boys in the past six years, the figures revealed. Police recorded a drop of 69% in girls' arrests and the number of girls held in penal custody decreased by 78% between 2010 and 2016.
The Howard League for Penal Reform, a UK charity campaigning to keep young people out of prison, hailed the significant drop as a "tremendous achievement."
The charity launched a programme in 2010 to stem the flow of children entering the criminal justice system. The Howard League's campaign centres on the belief that keeping children out of prison will help prevent nationwide crime and has conducted extensive research which shows that minors who end up in the criminal justice system are more likely to become entrenched and reoffend.
"For the sixth year running, we have seen a significant reduction in child arrests across the country," said Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League.
"This is a tremendous achievement, and we will continue to support police forces to develop their good practice and reduce the number to an absolute minimum. By working [with police], we are ensuring that tens of thousands of children will have a brighter future and not be dragged into a downward spiral of crime and custody."
The Howard League has called on law enforcement to increase the use of alternatives to custody for children, including rehabilitative programmes and community sentences for child offenders.
Under-18s who have committed a minor offence may be referred to a restorative justice scheme where a panel composed of police officers and youth support workers decide whether the young offender should go to court, be given a caution or a youth restorative intervention (YRI).
The YRI allows youth offenders a chance to explain what has happened and to find a positive way forward by drawing up a contract and agreeing to take part in a rehabilitative programme rather than ending up in front of a judge.
Since the intervention programme was introduced in 2011, 70-80% of crimes committed by under-18s have been dealt with through a YRI rather than a court. Reoffending rates of young offenders fell by 18% between 2011 and 2014, according to a report by GtD Social Impact Analytics.
Alternative sanctions for juveniles may include unpaid community work, such as removing graffiti, or completing a training project.