More than 27,000 children have been locked up before being convicted of any crime over the last five years. They include 1,004 under-18s held on remand for more than six months and 83 detained for more than one year.
The extent of youngsters being detained before appearing in court emerged as the Government trumpeted a sharp fall in youth crime. Around 2,600 under-18s are behind bars at any one time in England and Wales, which is among the highest rates of youth incarceration in Europe.
Youth Justice Board figures have disclosed that around 5,000 children are held on remand at some point every year. They include 5,471 in 2004-05, 5,673 in 2005-06, 5,601 in 2006-07, 5,301 in 2007-08 and 4,963 last year, adding up to 27,009 over five years.
Last year, 198 children were locked up on remand for more than six months. Numbers of children held on remand are 40 per cent higher than in 2000 and a recent survey estimated two-thirds of them were subsequently acquitted or given a community sentence.
The Prison Reform Trust (PRT) has calculated that one in five of the children locked up is on remand ? and that 95 per cent of them have pleaded not guilty. David Howarth, the Liberal Democrat justice spokesman, last night attacked ministers for "letting thousands of children fester in prison without even establishing their guilt". He told The Independent: "The official policy of only jailing children in exceptional circumstances is clearly not being followed, even before they've been tried.
"This barbaric practice of caging children for months on end before they have been found guilty must be stopped in all but the rarest incidents," he said.
Penelope Gibbs, director of the PRT's programme to reduce child and youth imprisonment, said: "Remand should only be used when it is dangerous to keep them in the community. If they are acquitted or given a community sentence, clearly they aren't that dangerous. The impact of locking up children even for a short period of time is terrible. They can be held hundreds of miles away from their families."
The Ministry of Justice said it regarded custody as a "last resort" for under-18s who are remanded. It said many youngsters in trouble with the law came from "chaotic family backgrounds", adding: "One of the factors the court needs to take into account is whether the accommodation he or she will be returning to is likely to carry a high risk of offending."
Yesterday, government figures showed the number of offenders convicted or given a police warning or reprimand was 74,033 last year, a fall of 21 per cent. It followed a 10 per cent reduction during the previous year.
*Thousands of children harmed after running away from home should be protected by a network of new refuge centres, the Children's Society said yesterday. It denounced the shortage of emergency accommodation for them, claiming only nine beds exist for more than 100,000 youngsters who run away each year.