Black and minority ethnic children account for more than a quarter of all child arrests across England and Wales, new figures show, raising concerns of "appalling" disproportionality in the justice system.
Data obtained through Freedom of Information law shows 26 per cent of all child arrests are youngsters from minority ethnic backgrounds — a figure more than double the proportion of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people in the population as a whole.
Campaigners and politicians have said the findings are a cause for “great concern”, and have called on the Government to take urgent action to tackle the "institutional racism" in the criminal justice system.
The findings will fuel growing concerns about the high proportion of BAME children in custody, which has risen dramatically in recent years — to 49 per cent — despite the fact that the overall number of children entering the justice system has recently fallen to a record low.
The new figures, obtained by the Howard League for Penal Reform, show 22,579 black or minority ethnic under-18s were arrested last year out of a total of 87,529. Five per cent of the total arrests were listed as "other", indicating shortfalls in recording practices by police forces.
While a lack of population data in relation to boys and girls aged 10 to 17 means it is difficult to directly assess the level of disproportionality, Home Office figures show that the BAME proportion of the overall population is 13 per cent, providing an indication that the child arrest figures are disproportionate.
In London, more than half (60 per cent) of all child arrests by the Metropolitan Police were black and ethnic minority children — with this group accounting for 12,000 out of 20,000 of the total. The capital has a 40 per cent BAME population overall.
Minority ethnic children meanwhile accounted for 42 per cent of child arrests in Bedfordshire — a policing area where only 23 per cent of the total population is BAME, while in the West Midlands, where 30 per cent of the total population is non-white, police recorded the arrest rate of minority children at 41 per cent.
The disproportionality in several regions was particularly stark. In Dorset, which has a non-white population of 4 per cent, BAME children accounted for 14 per cent of child arrests by police, while in Dyfed Powys, where non-white people make up just 2 per cent of the population, BAME children made up 25 per cent of child arrests.
It comes after a report by the prison watchdog last week revealed that almost half (49 per cent) of children in jails are from a black or other ethnic minority background, compared with 41 per cent the previous year and 35 per cent the year before that. In 2006, the proportion of BAME young offenders in custody was just 25 per cent.
The increase comes despite the fact that the overall number of children entering the justice system has fallen considerably. Police forces across England and Wales made fewer than 88,000 arrests of children in total last year, down from almost 250,000 in 2010, and the number of children in prison fell by 58 per cent between 2010 and 2016, according to a report by the Howard League earlier this year.
The Lammy Review, published in September by David Lammy MP, highlighted growing BAME disproportionality in the criminal justice system. Among other findings, it showed that the proportion of young people from ethnic minorities offending for the first time rose from 11 per cent in 2006 to 19 per cent a decade later.
The Tottenham MP subsequently called for a principle of “explain or reform” to apply to every institution in the criminal justice system, saying that if agencies cannot provide an evidence-based explanation for apparent disparities between ethnic groups, then reforms should be introduced to address those disparities.
Shortly after the review was published, Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick sparked fury after suggesting that harsher jail terms should use to deter teenagers driving a spate of knife crime in London, adding that young black men and boys were statistically more likely to be the victims and perpetrators.
Responding to the new arrest figures, Mr Lammy told The Independent: “While it is welcome news that the total number of child arrests is going down, it is a cause of real concern that the levels of disproportionality are so severe and are in fact getting worse.
“My review found that once a young person enters our criminal justice system for the first time, they are then much more likely to become a repeat offender and much less likely to be able to find a job and lead a stable life.
"I await the Government's response to my recommendations and I am hopeful that political parties can work together to make important and much-needed progress on this issue."
Fellow MP Diane Abbott, who has also campaigned against racial inequality, echoed his concerns, saying: “Concern over the disproportionate arrests of young black people goes back decades. It is appalling that that this has been allowed to continue for so long.
“Report after report raises the same issue, and communities are left asking just how much damning evidence is needed before the Government introduces reforms. It’s time that real action was taken to stamp out institutional racism in the criminal justice system.”
Zubaida Haque, research associate at the Runnymede Trust, told The Independent the figures fed into "glaring evidence" of racial discrimination and unconscious biases, citing disproportionately high stop and search rates and restraint-related incidences involving black and ethnic minorities.
“We need to ask more challenging questions about what is going on within police forces when there is evidence showing that BME people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched compared to white people, that a high proportion of restraint-related incidences involve black people and when there is considerable evidence of differential arrest rates of BME children," she said.
“We are aware that there are issues relating to cuts in policing, cuts in community support services and cuts in youth clubs, but we cannot ignore the glaring evidence of racial discrimination and unconscious biases.”
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said while the reduction in children entering the penal system was considerable progress, “there is still more work to do".
She continued: “The disproportionate number of BAME children being brought into the system is of great concern. It raises serious questions about decision-making throughout the criminal justice journey – from the police’s decision to arrest, to the remand and sentencing decisions of the youth courts.
“The Lammy Review has called on police forces and other criminal justice agencies to either explain disparities or reform. Our analysis of child arrests data is intended to assist this discussion.”
A Government spokesperson said: “Discrimination is as unacceptable in the criminal justice system as it is anywhere else - race and ethnicity cannot be used as justification for an arrest.
“The Government is committed to shining a light on injustice as never before which is why we published the Race Disparity Audit last month and will confront the issues it raised.
“We are looking carefully at the recommendations in David Lammy’s review.”
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