MORE than 22,000 children aged 10 to 17 were arrested by South Yorkshire Police in three years, according to new figures.
Some 22,648 children were detained by officers - 6,235 last year, 7,439 the year before, and 8,974 in 2008, which equates to nearly 21 arrests a day.
The numbers suggest “an excessive and inappropriate use of arrest for children” according to the Howard League for Penal Reform, which obtained the figures from police forces across the country.
It warns even more children could be arrested in future if police see youngsters as an easy target to boost arrest rates.
Former Sheffield Youth Offending Team worker Wayne Reid, aged 32, of Gleadless, agreed: “While I was at the service between 2005 and 2008, I did get the feeling young people were being overly criminalised.
“More were being given Referral Orders under a new law which, if broken, led to prosecution, whereas in the past they would have been given a slap on the wrist and taken home to their parents.
“These young people had been involved in shoplifting or minor assaults where they would previously have been cautioned.”
But Assistant Chief Constable Andy Holt, of South Yorkshire Police, said: “Police have a duty to protect the public, and serve victims with appropriate action often resulting in arresting suspects.
“Sometimes an arrest does not lead to a prosecution, however, the arrest was necessary and appropriate at the time of the initial investigation.”
Harrison Carter, aged 18, who represents Sheffield on the UK Youth Parliament, said he was surprised by the numbers.
The Birkdale School pupil said: “The figures look quite shocking. While young people are at an impressionable age, making steps to rehabilitate them is far more important than making examples of their behaviour.”
But Danny Piermattei MBE, who works with young offenders at his community group Action for Stannington in Sheffield, and runs projects for the probation service, said a lack of positive role models was to blame for the number of arrests.
He said: “You cannot blame the police. If someone does something wrong they should be arrested.
“But you need to work on prevention, and for that you need good role models, from the media, within families and within communities, to teach young people the difference between right and wrong.
“There are some individuals within South Yorkshire communities doing good work and acting as role models - Brendan Ingle in Wincobank, and Hilary Massarella at Safe at Last in Rotherham - but they are individuals and there is only so much they can do. With the Government cutbacks this will only get worse.”
He added: “Rehabilitation does work, but it must be firm, community-based rehabilitation. The softly-softly approach does not work.”
Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough MP and former Home Secretary David Blunkett said he had “no complaints” about the number of children being arrested.
“The figures are good news because they show a substantial fall of just under a third between 2008 and 2010, which is down to good work by the local Youth Offending Team,” he said.
And Sheffield South East Labour MP Clive Betts said: “I don’t think you can draw any conclusions from the total figures, as the Howard League has done.
“These arrests will cover a variety of incidents - from very serious cases to kids being arrested for nuisance offences and taken home.
“I haven’t received any complaints against the police for actions in this regard. Some of these arrests will have been made to protect other children - many offences such as mobile phone thefts are children against children.”
ACC Holt stressed custody procedures for arrested youngsters differ from those for adults. Arrested children are entitled to an appropriate adult to be with them, they are placed in a detention room rather than a cell, and restorative justice is often preferred as a punishment for first time offenders or lesser offences.
“But there will always be circumstances where the offence is too serious or restorative justice cannot be agreed by all parties at the outset,” he added.
Figures obtained from 35 of 43 forces by the Howard League charity showed 219,163 children were arrested in England and Wales last year - 22,135 of them under the age of 14.
A Government spokesman said: “Criminal acts, committed by young people or old people, cause serious harm to victims and communities.
“It is vital police officers have the powers to arrest the perpetrators. Just because an arrest does not lead to a prosecution does not mean the arrest was unnecessary or inappropriate.”