Howard League blog · 31 Mar 2021
There can be no doubt that an enduring racism disadvantages children in the criminal justice system
Media coverage trailing today’s report by Downing Street’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities quotes the conclusion that claims of institutional racism are ‘not borne out by the evidence’.
I thought it might be interesting to look at why children from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds in prison might not agree.
It is well recognised that the extremely high number of children in prison from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds is one of the most acute manifestations of the disparity the Commission was tasked to consider. The latest data from the Ministry of Justice shows that over half the young people in child prisons are from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds. One in three children are Black. Nine out of ten children remanded to custody from London are Black. It is troubling that so many unsentenced Black and minority ethnic children are held in custody when two thirds of all children on remand do not go on to receive a custodial sentence.
In February the prison inspectorate published its annual survey of children’s experiences in prison. This year’s responses paint a bleak picture, especially for children from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds. The data was not broken down further so I cannot relay the specific experiences of different groups.
The report shows that Black and minority ethnic children are more likely to report that staff do not care for, support or encourage them, that they have been restrained, and even that they do not have adequate access to showers and clean sheets.
It would be hard to conclude that Black and minority ethnic children are anything other than systematically disadvantaged in the secure estate:
- Seventy-one per cent of Black and minority ethnic children reported that they had been physically restrained in custody, compared to 59 per cent of white children
- Twenty-eight per cent of Black and minority ethnic children reported that their complaints were usually dealt with fairly, compared to 45 per cent of white children
- Only one in five Black and minority children felt that the system of rewards and incentives was fair, compared to a third of white children
- Black and minority ethnic children were less likely than white children to report that they got daily showers (65 per cent vs 81 per cent) or clean sheets each week (72 per cent vs 86 per cent)
- Forty-three per cent of Black and minority ethnic children reported that the shop/canteen sold the things they needed, compared to 56 per cent of white children
- Black and minority ethnic children were significantly less likely than white children to report that staff made them feel cared for, helped them to deal with problems and worries when they arrived or encouraged them to attend education
Despite the greater public consciousness of the need to tackle discrimination, it is troubling that this year Black and minority ethnic children were less likely to report that they were supported and encouraged by staff than they had been in 2018/19.
In the last quarter, 60 per cent of the calls to our legal advice line were from young people from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds
The concerns aired by children to the inspectorate resonate with what children tell us through our legal and policy work. In the last quarter, 60 per cent of the calls to our legal advice line were from young people from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds. We regularly deal with concerns from young people from minority backgrounds who have been unfairly restrained or feel they have nobody to turn to. Their experiences are not surprising: a recent analysis by the Youth Justice Board has shown that Black and minority ethnic children are significantly more likely to be remanded or sentenced to custody than white children. For Black children, this cannot be explained by demographic or offence-related factors.
In September, we raised the high proportion of Black and minority ethnic children and young adults who are remanded to custody in a letter to Robert Buckland about extensions to custody time limits. Alongside Just for Kids Law, we successfully campaigned against the custody time limits extension for children.
There can be no doubt that there is a systemic and enduring racism that disadvantages children in the criminal justice system. I look forward to reading the 264-page report to be published today but there is still a lot of work to do and we must all play a part.
That’s why we are developing a guide for anti-racist lawyers, in collaboration with an expert advisory group. The guide aims to improve Black clients’ experiences at the police station, in court and after court. We are also feeding into the Youth Justice Board’s work on racial disproportionality, and working collaboratively with other organisations to highlight disproportionality in remand.
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The first time I visited Holloway in early 1980s I was taken aback at the high number of young black women Prisoners I saw. Sadly little has changed in the last 40 years.