Tackling race 'bias' in youth justice

Derren Hayes
Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A "bias" that affects ethnic minority young people can only be addressed with better training, say experts.

Responding recently to a consultation on new sentencing guidelines, the Youth Justice Board (YJB) called for an end to the "unconscious bias" within the court system against black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) children and young people.

The YJB has long highlighted concerns about the disproportionately high number of BAME young people throughout the youth justice system, adding in its consultation response that "this overrepresentation increases at the point of sentencing".

Latest YJB figures show that in June, 46 per cent (411) of the 890 under-18s in youth custody were of BAME background compared to 53 per cent (471) who were white.

This is a substantial rise compared with the recent peak in youth custody figures, in June 2008, when the proportion of young people who were of BAME background stood at 25 per cent, compared to 67 per cent who were white.

Tackling disproportionality

Over the past five years, the YJB has made it a priority to address disproportionality and new chief executive Colin Allars has reiterated the need to tackle the issue.

"Clearly, it is an area we must concentrate on," he says. "Much work has been done by the YJB, but it hasn't had the traction many of us would have liked. I have made clear to the staff team that I mean to pick this up as a personal priority and drive it forward."

Allars says that key to this is understanding the factors behind disproportionality.

"It is about understanding what leads to it in terms of BAME children coming into the system in the first place," he says. "Are they being picked up but not being diverted to other alternatives as effectively as non-BAME children? Is there something about the way information about them is presented and considered that is leading to disproportionality?

"It is present at every stage in the system - we need to understand all of this."

The issue of racial bias in the youth justice system, and public services more generally, is also on the wider political agenda.

Labour MP David Lammy has been commissioned by the government to undertake a review of BAME representation in the criminal justice system, which is set to report in spring 2017.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Theresa May last month ordered an audit of public services to highlight racial disparities across health, education, justice and employment issues (see box).

As Home Secretary, May criticised police for their disproportionate use of stop and search powers on young black men, who are seven times more likely to be stopped than white people.

In his State of Youth Justice 2015 report, Tim Bateman, of the University of Bedfordshire, says young people are more likely to be subject to stop and search because they spend more time in public areas.

"During 2013/14, nearly a quarter of stop and searches were on minority ethnic individuals," he says. "This is important because higher levels of searching of particular groups will inevitably yield increased rates of arrest."

Tougher sentencing

Once in the system, BAME young people are also more likely to receive harsher sentences by courts than their white counterparts.

Bateman's analysis shows that black and mixed heritage young people made up 12.9 per cent of the youth offending population in 2013/14, but more than a quarter of all custodial sentences given.

By contrast, the YJB highlights that white young people are more likely to receive community sentences (74 per cent) than those of black background (70 per cent).

The YJB says other factors affecting BAME disproportionality include higher rates of school exclusions, lone-parent families, child mental health problems, inadequate housing and children in care.

It has developed a toolkit, piloted in 16 areas, to help youth offending teams identify where disproportionality exists in the system and create ways to reduce it.

Shauneen Lambe, executive director of charity Just for Kids Law, says better education and training for youth justice professionals and those working in the judiciary will address the "unintentional bias" in the system.

"At every point of the system, there is disproportionality," Lambe says. "The criminal justice system has not developed as fast as society has and there is a lack of exposure to other systems.

"In parts of the US, there is bias training for practitioners in the youth justice system.

"In the UK, we have brought young people with experience of the criminal justice system to train lawyers and the judiciary.

"It is encouraging that this is being discussed - I hope that the learning comes about faster."


From next year, government departments will be required to publish information on how outcomes differ for people of different backgrounds in a range of areas including health, education and employment.

The information will be gathered as part of an audit of public services that has been ordered by Prime Minister Theresa May. She believes it will "shine a light" on how public services treat people from different backgrounds.

The audit will be led by a new dedicated Whitehall unit situated in the Cabinet Office, reporting jointly to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Sajid Javid, and Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer. The first data is expected to be published before summer 2017 and will be updated annually to ensure the public can track improvement.

The government envisages that the audit will enable the public to check how their race affects their chances of being unemployment, suffering mental health problems and being excluded from school. It says the findings will influence government policy.

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