11:14, February 01 182 0 theguardian.com

2019-02-01 11:14:08
‘There is no silver bullet’: how young BME people suffer under criminal justice system

When Theresa May announced on the steps of Downing Street she was to be the new prime minister she placed fighting “burning injustice” in the UK at the heart of her vision to put union back into the politics of the Conservative and Unionist Party.

Among a litany of examples of such injustices, she included: “If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white.”

As May gave this speech in July 2016, the Labour MP David Lammy was conducting a landmark review into the treatment of and outcomes for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BME) individuals in the criminal justice system.

At that time, the proportion of BME inmates in youth jails – young offender institutions (YOIs) and secure training centres (STCs) – was hovering around 40%, a figure Lammy already felt was shockingly high.


But on Monday, figures revealed this disproportionality had deepened since May addressed the nation as PM for the first time. More than half – 51% – of inmates in YOIs now identified as being from a BME background – nearly four times the 14% BME proportion of the wider UK population.

Lammy said he was alarmed by the figure, which was pushing at “American” levels of disproportionality, but why has the problem worsened since he conducted his review? “There is no silver bullet to this problem,” Lammy said.

“Disproportionality in youth custody is the result of a number of complex issues that have come together over the past few years.

“These includes cuts to local authorities, police, increased deprivation within housing estates, and reduced funding for youth and mental health services.

“Disproportionality starts early: black Caribbean pupils are about three and a half times more likely to be permanently excluded from state schools than all students.”

The Labour MP repeated his concerns over a lack of diversity in the judiciary – an issue, which has not been tackled in the two years since the review. The proportion of BAME judges rose by just one percentage point between April 2016 and April 2017 to 7% and then stagnated.

He said: “Courts are too distant from the communities they put on trial. As I have consistently recommended, we desperately need to find more black judges, particularly females, who are chronically underrepresented in our courts across London and the UK.”

Before turning his life around, Sephton Henry was in and out of several prisons including youth offender institutions. Now running his own company, Unity Together, which aims to empower communities, he agrees that disproportionality throughout public life has an impact on young BME people.

“Through what I have seen, there is a massive disproportion of BME people in the governmental sector,” he said.

He adds: “I’ve worked with the NHS, the Youth Justice Board, I’ve been in the Houses of Parliament, I’ve trained government staff and I’ve been in the mayor’s office. What I’ve found is the people asking about knife crime, about youth justice, they don’t come from the BME community and they have the power to make decisions. Why are there not more people from a BME background making those important decisions?”

Henry’s experience has informed strong views on why BME disproportionality is worsening and the downward spiral effect it can have on young black men.

Recalling his time in YOI Feltham, which has a staggering 71% proportion of BME inmates, he said: “The whole jail was black. There were hardly any other races in there. It was all black boys. There were a few white boys, just an odd few on each wing. I have seen the same in Feltham, Isis, Rochester, Aylesbury and Brixton prisons.

“You look around. You think this is my life. Everything is set up for us to fail.”

Violence against the person makes up the greatest proportion of proven offences against children, around 28% of all offences fell into this category.

Last year, the Home Office launched its serious violence strategy, which included findings that young offenders often come from disadvantaged backgrounds and have complex needs such as homelessness, poor educational attainment, lack of employable skills and mental health issues.

Disproportionality is prevalent throughout many of these metrics. People from BME backgrounds are twice as likely to be unemployed than white people, they are more likely to be excluded from school and more likely to live in single parent households.

The Home Office placed early intervention at the heart of its strategy as a means to tackle some of these root causes and prevent young people from being drawn into a life of crime. A £17m fund was set up to support services that provide such help.

Donna Molloy, director of policy and practice at the Early Intervention Foundation, said the case for making early intervention a higher priority is strong.

“The challenge now is to realise that potential,” she said. “Too much early intervention has not been tested here in the UK. We need to test it more, and we need to fund it properly.”

She added: “We know that behavioural problems in childhood are predictive of children’s later involvement in crime and anti-social behaviour during teenage years and adulthood.”

Parenting is a key influence on development and many services focus on supporting parents, most often following a referral from a school or nursery worker.

Molloy added: “This isn’t just an issue for low-income families – obviously there are parents who need support who are from affluent families too. However, that said, there is a strong correlation between income and the sorts of issues we’re talking about.

“We know that wide and persistent gaps in children’s development open up along socio-economic lines from an early age. Babies from poorer households are more likely to have lower birth weight, a less stimulating home learning environment, to develop social and emotional and social problems, and are more likely to have behavioural problems.

“Early intervention works to close the gaps in outcomes between children growing up in poorer and better-off households. It’s an equaliser. That’s why it’s such an important plank of any government strategy for social mobility.”

But funding for early intervention services is being cut. A landmark report, Turning the Tide, produced by Action for Children, Children’s Society and National Children’s Bureau, revealed that between 2010/11 and 2015/16 spend on early intervention fell in real terms by 40%. Sure Start centres, which would provide access to early intervention services, saw funding halved over eight years.


The Ministry of Justice said in response to the Lammy Review that it created a dedicated team within the Youth Justice Policy Unit to work closely with the Youth Justice Board on disproportionality.

But if May wants to realise her vision of tackling the burning injustice of black men being treated more harshly by the criminal justice system she will have to look at the impact austerity is having on services that can prevent them from coming into contact with police, courts and prisons in the first place.