The Youth Just Board released a report in March 2023 on “Understanding ethnic disparity in reoffending rates in the youth justice system” to examine the factors behind the over-representation of ethnic minority children in the youth justice system.
The report sought to identify the contextual factors that drive ethnic disparity in reoffending rates, as well as understand the perceptions of children with experience of the youth justice system regarding the support and interventions they have experienced. Through conducting interviews with children with who have reoffended in England, as well as youth justice practitioners, the report set out four key thematic drivers of ethnic disparity in offending rates for children.
- The marginalisation of individuals and communities was identified as the first key driver. In its analysis, the report focused on likelihood of poverty; experience of exclusion; access to education; special educational needs; and care status. The report noted that nearly all children interviewed had been excluded prior to, or as a direct result of their first offence. Exclusion from school makes children’s lives more unpredictable, and reduces opportunities for practitioners to engage with them in a safe space. Exclusion also restricts availability of educational courses; this is particularly unhelpful when children want to gain skills and achieve their goals. The report further identifies poverty and social class, as well as distrust of authorities, as background factors contributing to a system in which ethnic minority children feel over-policed yet under-protected.
- The report identifies individual, institutional, and systemic bias as the second key driver. Interviews with children found that implicit and explicit racism within different institutions resulted in a lack of safeguarding; ethnic minority children are more commonly treated as adults, but more often in a patronising way compared to their white peers. Additionally, the report notes that systemic racial bias was evident in a lack of diversity among the police and courts’ system. Interviewees perceived this bias by being stopped and searched far more, and sentenced for longer, than their white peers.
- The report focuses on weaknesses in prevention and intervention as the third key driver. Interviewees praised casework interactions where trusting relationships were already in place. However, the report found that strong relationships between caseworkers and children were not always evident, often due to a lack of time and resources. Further analysis identified a shortage of care management services such as Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services and employability support as an additional driver for reoffending.
- The report identifies negative experiences of the wider youth justice system as the fourth key driver. Many children found that a lack of available information on navigating the youth justice system, particularly in relation to police custody and inadequate legal representation, increased trauma and the risk of reoffending. The report highlights delays to court procedures as creating significant emotional distress, and reducing engagement in education, employment and training. Additionally, interviewees said that the effectiveness of interventions was diminished by a failure of sentencing to account for their needs and experiences. Children interviewed with experience of care found custody in a secure unit to be a desirable outcome of criminal proceedings, providing a stable environment.
The report includes several recommendations grouped around the four key thematic drivers. On exclusion, the report urges this action only as a last resort. Where it is resorted to, increased provision of online tutoring is encouraged. The report urges greater funding and support for youth justice practitioners and services, as well as embedding them in police custody suites and other youth justice localities. Additionally, the report recommends increased diversity and standardised intelligence collection within the system.
Clearly, disparity is a central factor behind children’s re-offending rates and Courts and Prosecutors should be reminded of this wherever possible. The importance of recognising children’s background when sentencing is formally recognised in the Sentencing Children Guidelines in section 1 (in particular, see paras 1.13- 18). Practitioners will find this report a useful authority when preparing mitigation submissions for sentencing or drafting Pre-Sentence Reports and, indeed, when making representations against criminalising children. Practitioners may also benefit from YJLC’s legal guides on fighting racial injustice when raising disparity in their representations.
Paul Hastings (Europe) LLP