An average of 44 children are locked up overnight in Lancashire Police cells each week, new figures have revealed.
Research by the Howard League for Penal Reform showed there were 2,314 overnight detentions of children aged 17 and under in police stations across the county during 2011.
This figure has fallen from 2,696 in 2010, but was still the second highest of the 34 police forces who responded to the charity. Only Metropolitan Police locked up more children overnight.
The number of overnight detentions fell nationwide from more than 45,000 to 40,716 – a success for the charity’s campaign to reduce the number of children getting caught up in the criminal justice system. But now it has called for the practice of holding children overnight in police cells to be brought to an end altogether.
Frances Crook, chief executive of the charity, said: “Holding children as young as 10 in police cells overnight is unjustifiable.
“The vast majority of children who are locked up are innocent of any crime, and it is a frightening and intimidating experience which does more harm than good.
“It is encouraging to see the number of detentions is falling nationwide, thanks in part to our successful campaigning. This is a victory for common sense, prudent use of police resources and improved community relations.
“But the number remains far too high and it is particularly worrying to see that practice varies widely from police service to police service.
“What boys and girls need in most cases is simply to go home. On rare occasions, somewhere safe – not somewhere secure – should be provided by the local authority.
“Parents, not police, should be taking responsibility for their children. Police are to be congratulated for the significant fall in the use of police cells in recent years. It is extravagantly expensive to detain children at a time of austerity, particularly when almost all of them are innocent, or have just been naughty and that behaviour can be dealt with quickly and safely by parents.”
Chorley MP Lindsay Hoyle said it should be a “last resort” to lock up children overnight, but sometimes it was necessary if children had committed serious crimes.
He said: “There ought to be a youth provision area within a police station, a specialist holding area that works with social services, because there will be serious incidents involving young people who may be a danger to themselves or to others. It’s about getting the balance right.”
The Howard League urged police to work more closely with parents and children’s services to provide safe and appropriate care.
It called for the presumption of bail to be strictly applied to children and for police to be trained in safeguarding and child protection.
The NSPCC welcomed the reduction in numbers of children kept in overnight custody.
A spokesman said: “Whenever possible, we encourage the release of children into the custody of their parents or carers.
“There should be the provision of suitable secure accommodation in the very small number of cases when a child must be kept in police custody.”
The drop in detentions has coincided with a 15 per cent fall in the number of child arrests. Several police services have reviewed their arrest policies and procedures after working with the Howard League.
Over the two-year period, there were 387 overnight detentions of children of primary school age. Girls accounted for just 15 per cent of the total number of detentions.
The figures are to be presented to MPs on Tuesday at a Howard League event at Westminster.