The Howard League for Penal Reform recently published its annual briefing on child arrests in England and Wales, which analyses the data on child arrests in 2019. The Howard League launched its Programme to Reduce Child Arrests in 2010 and its impact has been huge; in 2010 the total number of child arrests was 245,763, whereas in 2019 the number was 71,885. Every police force in England and Wales has reduced their number of child arrests.
Analysis of the 2019 figures showed a slight rise, resulting overall in a 2% increase in child arrests nationally. The reasons for the slight rise are discussed in the briefing and include consideration of the impact of the police response to county lines operations and also the proportion of front line officers with relatively little policing experience.
The report notes that the downward trend in child arrests would be expected to slow down at some point, but that the 2% increase requires some examination. One of the explanations given was linked to the manner in which some police forces deal with vulnerable children who may be exploited by criminal gangs as part of county lines drug operations. There were reports that some officers struggle to understand how best to help children in these situations and may see arresting them as a way of keeping them safe. The Howard League makes clear that the damage of unnecessary arrest must be recognised, noting that it may compound the problems vulnerable children face, causing them to be further criminalised and to lose trust in the ability of authorities to assist them. Further work needs to be done by all police forces to find ways to safeguard vulnerable child victims of exploitation without the need to use arrests as a tool.
Additionally, the lack of experience of frontline officers was a significant issue which may have impacted on the increase in child arrests. One senior police officer noted that 80% of frontline officers in his force had less than two years’ experience. This lack of experience is likely to impact on the decision making and judgement required to recognise the alternative strategies and disposals available when dealing with children and young people.
The Howard League is to be commended for the impact its work has had on the number of child entrants to the criminal justice system over the course of the last ten years. The briefing notes that the slight upturn in numbers is something to be monitored closely, and that careful and consistent data collection and analysis is the key to understanding, and ultimately impacting, the numbers of children being arrested.
This is even clearer when it comes to the issue of overrepresentation. The briefing makes clear that BAME children are overrepresented in the number of child arrests. Despite the large reduction in child arrests, it is clear that BAME children have not benefitted from diversion efforts to the same extent as white children. The data shows that black children are over four times more likely to be arrested than white children, and the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on black children grows exponentially through the system (see also the disproportionate use of custodial sentences for BAME children and young people). Again, the key to understanding and impacting this extremely concerning issue is rigorous data collection and scrutiny. This in turn will lead to a better understanding of the disparities in order that appropriate remedial action can be taken.
Written by Vivien Cochrane, Senior Associate, Kingsley Napley