Tackling Racial Injustice: Children and the Youth Justice System

The challenge 

At most stages of the youth justice system – from arrest to custody – the proportion of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) young people is higher than the proportion of white young people. This disproportionality can be seen at its starkest in the youth custodial estate, where the BAME population is 51%, despite being 18% of the 10-17 year old population.

The rise in proportion of BAME young people in the youth secure estate (YSE) has coincided with a drop in the number of young people within the YSE. The under-18 secure population peaked in October 2002, with the number of incarcerated young people at 3,200. Since then the number of young people within the YSE has gradually declined, with only 835 being held in November 2018. The majority of this decline is a result of a reduction in white young people being held in the secure estate.

This pattern – a reduction in the total number of young people at each stage of the youth justice system being driven primarily by a reduction of white young people – is reflected in other stages of the youth justice system. However, the continuing presence of BAME young people in the YJS is causing increasing racial disparities.

JUSTICE has convened a Working Party to explore the reasons why disproportionality is occurring in the youth justice system, with a view to making positive recommendations for change and reducing racial disparities in the youth justice system.

The Working Party 

This Working Party will examine the causes of BAME disproportionality in the Youth Justice System (YJS) of England and Wales. It will make practical recommendations with a view to reducing that disproportionality. In addition, it will seek to ensure that children are not needlessly criminalised by improving the attitudes, processes and procedures in the YJS.

The members of the working party are:

  • Sandra Paul (chair) (Partner at Kingsley Napley)
  • Mehran Behvandi (First Tier Tribunal Judge and Solicitor)
  • Kate Aubrey-Johnson (co-author of Youth Justice Law and Practice Handbook and Barrister, Garden Court Chambers)
  • Sam Cottman (solicitor, Travers Smith)
  • Pippa Goodfellow (Director, Standing Committee for Youth Justice)
  • Millicent Grant (former president of CILEx and JUSTICE council member)
  • Garry Green (barrister, Doughty Street Chambers)
  • N. Lynn Hiestand (former partner of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and JUSTICE board member)
  • Katya Moran (Co-Head Youth Justice Legal Centre)
  • Jude Lanchin (Solicitor, Bindmans)
  • Samantha Magness (Head of Policy and Inclusion, Crown Prosecution Service)
  • Danielle Manson (Barrister, Garden Court Chambers)
  • Adam Mooney (Programme Manager, disproportionality, Youth Justice Board)
  • Maya Sikand (Recorder in crime and Barrister, Garden Court Chambers)
  • Tariq Desai (Rapporteur)

We are very grateful to Travers Smith who are supporting the Working Party.

The Report 

Having sat since October 2019, the Working Party has made 45 recommendations which seek to increase decision-makers’ understanding of the child appearing before them. In doing so, the aim is to eradicate, and if not, minimise, the bias, suspicion and misperception that pervades discriminatory exercise of power so as to meet BAME communities’ expectations of fair and impartial treatment at each stage of, and interaction with, the criminal justice system.

Key recommendations include:

  • Suspending blanket use of ‘section 60’ stop and search powers for serious violence in a locality, until the Home Office has evaluated its impact and effectiveness;
  • Abolishing the ‘Gangs Violence Matrix’, which indiscriminately includes thousands of BAME children and young adults, threatening their access to education and jobs;
  • Preventing the unfair use of Drill music as bad character evidence in court, to tackle the corrosive effect of portraying a genre of music as innately illegal, dangerous and problematic;
  • Creating a national framework for diversion, to ensure children everywhere can receive specialist support not prosecution;
  • Expanding initiatives that give children a voice, through access to translators where there is a language barrier, as well as other innovative methods.
  • Enforcing mandatory specialist child-focused training for lawyers, as well as high-standard cultural competency training for all criminal justice agencies, so that all those who work with children are able to do so effectively;
  • Urgently improving information available to magistrates at bail hearings, so that remand in custody is significantly reduced;
  • Requiring all complaints concerning children to be investigated by the Independent Office for Police Conduct; and
  • Mandating the police turn on their body worn video cameras before every stop and search, so that improper conduct is prevented or caught.

These changes will help to build a child-first approach into the justice system, with sources of bias and discrimination addressed through changes to policy, institutional culture, and practices. While no one report can undo years of structural racism, we hope to support the continued efforts of communities seeking equal justice.

Read the full report here (PDF-version available here)

Children’s Report:

As we believe that a child-first approach is needed in the YJS, we have created a children’s version of our report.

You can read it in your browser here.

If you are a social worker, teacher, or work with children, and would like a PDF version of this version, please get in touch with us.