A parliamentary committee is demanding an explanation from ministers for the “disproportionate” incarceration of Black and minority ethnic (Bame) teenagers, after a report found they make up more than half of inmates youth custody.
A drive to keep young people out of the justice system by offering social, psychiatric and educational help or drug rehabilitation has been successful in dramatically cutting the numbers of cautions and convictions handed out to 10-17 year-olds in England and Wales over the past decade, found the House of Commons Justice Committee.
But it has benefited white youngsters dramatically more than those from Bame backgrounds, who now make up twice the proportion of children in the youth justice system as in 2009.
Crime reduction charities gave evidence to the committee’s inquiry that the change was driven partly by increased use of stop-and-search, a “gang narrative” which defined black teenagers as a risk and mandatory sentencing for possessing knives.
The disproportionate use of custody for black youngsters was highlighted in 2017 in a report for then PM Theresa May by Labour MP David Lammy, who said ministers must explain the disparity between the treatment of white and ethnic minority youths or reform the system.
The Justice Committee echoed Mr Lammy’s concerns, stating that “we are not convinced that disproportionality has satisfactorily been ‘explained or reformed’” and calling on the Ministry of Justice to set out its research on the issue, including explaining whether unconscious bias may play a part.
The inquiry heard that the number of white children receiving a caution or conviction decreased by 79 per cent over the past 10 years, compared to 55 per cent for those from Bame backgrounds. As a result, the proportion of ethnic minority youngsters in the system doubled from 14 per cent to 27 per cent over the period.
And among those actually held in custody, some 51.9 per cent were from a Bame background in May this year - 29 per cent Black, 11.7 per cent mixed race and 11.2 per cent Asian and other - compared to 27 per cent in 2009. The ethnic make-up inside youth custody centres was way adrift from the general 10–17 population, where 82 per cent are white, 4 per cent Black, 4 per cent mixed race and 10 per cent Asian and other, said the report.
Chief inspector of probation Justin Russell told the inquiry: “Over the last 10 years… the number of arrests of young people of all races has been coming down, as has the number of cautions and the number of young people going into custody, but it has been coming down much quicker for white children than it has for Bame children, in particular for Black boys.
“That is a real concern. Somehow the system seems to be better at diverting white children away from the formal criminal justice system than it is for Bame children and young people. That is the big thing that needs exploring, I think, going forward”.
Calling on ministers to fulfil Mr Lammy’s call to “explain or reform”, the Justice Committee said: “Race disproportionality is significant and fundamental, visible in every part of the youth justice system … We are not convinced that disproportionality has satisfactorily been ‘explained or reformed’.”
The committee welcomed a dramatic reduction in the raw numbers of children being sentenced for crimes in the youth courts of England and Wales from around 130,000 in 2009 to 21,700 in 2019 – a drop of 83 per cent. The number sentenced to custody fell from 2,625 to 737 between 2009 and 2020.
But committee chair Sir Bob Neill said: “The smaller number of children coming through the system these days tend to have more complex vulnerabilities and so higher needs. Many have suffered neglect and abuse which have led to mental health issues or learning difficulties. This is not an excuse for their behaviour, but it does go some way to explaining it.
“If we want better outcomes for these children – and that also means lower re-offending rates, which is better for society – we need to adopt a much broader approach. The criminal justice system needs to draw on a range of public agencies for help in this area. We need to bring in social, health and psychological services. Much greater priority should be given to this whole-system approach in the development of future policy and practice.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We’ve made great strides in improving the youth justice system and, as a result, there are 83 per cent fewer children in it than there were 10 years ago.
"Those who remain are particularly vulnerable and challenging and we are focusing on ensuring they have the support they need to turn their lives around.
“Sadly, there’s no quick fix to tackling the deep-rooted racial disparities in the criminal justice system, but government investment in education and early intervention will help.”
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