How youth offending services can address over-representation of BAME young people in custody

Joanne Parkes
Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Over-representation of black and minority ethnic (BAME) young people in youth custody is a problem highlighted regularly by campaigners.

Questions have been raised over whether BAME offenders are benefitting fairly from the community-based opportunities. Picture: Adobe Stock
Questions have been raised over whether BAME offenders are benefitting fairly from the community-based opportunities. Picture: Adobe Stock

Despite repeated calls to “explain or reform”, since MP David Lammy’s 2017 review of the issue, the rate has got worse.

Last year, for the first time, a majority of young people in custody - 51 per cent - were BAME.

This contrasted sharply with a huge fall in the total number of under-18s in custody in England and Wales since 2010.

Custodial rate for BAME and white children 2009-2019 Source: Ministry of Justice sentencing data 2009-2019

The factors behind this are complex and system-wide, with racial bias - whether unconscious or more overt - being spotlighted.

A key starting point for identifying and tackling bias is better data, analysis, and consistent publication of it.

This would, it is hoped, lead to greater accountability and be a strong driver of change. Charity the Revolving Doors Agency states in its recent report, ‘Racial bias is pulling young adults into the revolving door’: “Much of the data on ethnicity in the criminal justice system is incomplete, out of date, unpublished, inconsistent, or otherwise problematic.

“Where figures are available, worrying trends emerge.”

Questions arise over whether BAME offenders are benefitting fairly from the community-based opportunities on offer through local youth offending teams (YOTs), who can help divert young people away from criminal prosecution and custody.

HMI Probation reports have highlighted efforts by a number of youth offending services to get a handle on disproportionality, including Camden, Oldham, and Sandwell.

YOTs are held to an inspection standard, which considers whether teams are giving sufficient consideration to racial diversity when analysing performance data and when planning activities with young people.

They also have an important role to play in highlighting decisions elsewhere in the system that may be disproportionate, such as school exclusions and arrests.

Revolving Doors says the lack of data means, for example, that it is not clear to what extent disproportionality is driven by the earlier stages in the criminal justice pipeline, such as stop and search, or by the diminished use of police discretion to divert.

Buckinghamshire Youth Offending Service last year published its own analysis and an action plan on how to tackle the county’s disproportionality problem, after adopting the Youth Justice Board’s Summary Ethnic Disproportionality Toolkit.

Social impact analytics organisation Get the Data, suggests more YOTs could follow suit with this enhanced approach, and could be required to publish reports regularly as a matter of national policy.

One of the organisation’s directors, Jack Cattell, says a simple analysis of decisions shows that BAME young people are “more likely to be given a custodial sentence and more likely to be placed on remand”.

There could be factors, such as offence type, that may explain this difference and therefore the data should be weighted so that BAME and white samples are equal on important measures, adds Cattell.

Describing his analysis of Ministry of Justice data between 2009 and 2019, he continues: “After adjusting for offence, gender and court type, the custodial rate for BAME children is consistently higher than for white children.”

During this period, the custody rate for BAME children was between one and two per cent higher, except in 2017 when the rate was 0.5 per cent higher.

By 2019, 11.5 per cent of BAME children were given a custodial sentence compared with 10.5 per cent of white children.

Cattell also highlights how the remand rate at the crown court has been increasing over the last five years but “the proportion of BAME children remanded has been consistently higher than for white children”.

In 2015, after adjustment for offence type and gender, 39.5 per cent of court hearings for BAME children resulted in a remand to custody compared with 30 per cent for white children.

The equivalent figures in 2019 were 50.3 per cent and 40.3 per cent.

He says: “We advise all YOTs to work with the police to understand any biases at all stages of the criminal justice system.

“These are deciding there is an offence, whether to take no further action, whether to charge or caution, actually proceeding to court and the final sentence if found guilty.

“Any reviews need to be aware of the negative circle caused by disproportionate outcomes: the more punitive your first disposal or sentence, the more likely you are to receive an even more punitive sentence if you reoffend.

“Breaking these data down by YOT and police force area will enable YOTs to complete the analyses we recommend.”

Cattell also recommends the release of statistics by ethnicity, on police decisions to pursue prosecutions or not. He invites YOTs and others to contact Get the Data to discuss the approach and for a copy of how the analysis was carried out.

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