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Howard League blog · 12 Apr 2023

Racial disparities in youth justice – from policing to custody

It is only early April, but this year has already laid bare alarming trends in youth justice.  

From policing to custody, disproportionality is amplified at every stage of the criminal justice process. The result is an overrepresentation of Black, Brown, and Racialised children in prisons, where poorly funded regimes and limited mental health support make release a revolving door.

Our programme to reduce racial disparities in youth justice aims to address this problem. Working with courts, youth justice services, community groups, and those with experience of criminal justice systems, we will identify key gateways for disproportionality, and draw up practical recommendations on how to tackle them.

Over the next few months, our focus will be on the role of decision-making in custodial remand placements. Our research so far has shown that a conflation of risk with vulnerability is leading to unnecessary custodial outcomes. When Black, Brown and Racialised children comprise 58 per cent of those on remand, but only 18 per cent of 10- to 17-year-olds nationally, it is clear which children this is impacting most.

The overcriminalisation and underprotection of communities of colour has never been more starkly illustrated in official statistics. And the need for criminal justice institutions to reflect inwards, never more urgent. We also know that race and class cannot be disentangled, and that areas with the most deprivation are also the most policed. As a result, the youth custody estate comprises children with complex needs arising not simply from their own behaviour, but from lack of secure housing, lack of consistent education, closures of youth centres, increased curtailment on creative expression, a social care system on its knees, and an approach to youth crime that collapses these factors into risk profiles and gravity scores.

In the last three months alone, we have seen: 

  • A report on Support for vulnerable adolescents from the Public Accounts Committee –  while the number of children in youth custody across all ethnicities has reduced by 73 per cent in the last 10 years, the proportion from ethnic minority backgrounds has increased (from 32 per cent to 53 per cent).
  • The Casey ReviewBlack-appearing people in London were more than three times more likely to be handcuffed than White-appearing people of the same age, four-and-a-half times more likely to have a baton used against them, and almost four times as likely to have a Taser fired on them by a Metropolitan Police officer.  
  • An analysis of strip searches on children in England and Wales by The Children’s Commissioner for England – Black children are six times more likely to be strip-searched compared to national population figures. More than half of these searches result in no further action; more than half are conducted without an Appropriate Adult confirmed present. Data analysed by Liberty Investigates shows that almost half of girls subjected to strip-searches between 2017 and 2022 were Black. 

Our own Freedom of Information requests reveal that in September 2022, despite comprising just four per cent of all 10- to-17-year-olds, there were as many Black children as White children on remand.   

In light of these powerful inequalities, our vision of youth justice must be unashamedly anti-racist and intersectional. More scrutiny of who gets out-of-court disposals, who gets remanded to custody, what mitigating factors are deemed relevant (and for whom), and who is constructed as ‘high risk’ rather than ‘vulnerable’, is urgently needed.  

Welcome changes to youth justice processes – such as the implementation of a ‘Child First’ approach, tightening of the Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders Act tests for remand, and the opening of the London Accommodation Pathfinder as an alternative to custody – can only do so much to backstop accumulated disproportionality from further upstream, where policing, prosecutions, and who gets to be diverted reflect and amplify racial inequalities embedded in our society.  

There have been some encouraging recent developments, such as: 

  • The Youth Justice Board’s 2022-23 Business Plan, which:
    states a commitment to address ‘upstream feeders of cumulative disproportionality’; and
    promises the release of new research findings on ethnic disproportionality and reoffending in Autumn 2023 
  • The Crown Prosecution Service agreeing to monitor data on the ethnicity of defendants, and whether the case is presented as ‘gang-related’, as a result of tireless campaigning from our friends at JENGbA, with support from Liberty.  

We look forward to seeing implementation strategies for these projects, and working with relevant government stakeholders to ensure they produce positive outcomes for the group and individuals concerned.

Leela Jadhav, Policy Officer at the Howard League for Penal Reform


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