The Youth Justice Legal Centre Summit: Bias. Discrimination. Fear. delved into five areas where children in the criminal justice system experience discrimination: Girls, Race, Class, Kids (age), and Fear. Thanks to the generosity of our sponsors we were able to offer free tickets to all and were delighted to have reached 1,890 views by the end of the day!
We heard from a diverse panels of leading experts from around the globe including The Rt Hon The Baroness Hale of Richmond, Rt Hon David Lammy MP, Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, Professor Emerita Geraldine Van Bueren QC, Professor Ann Skelton, Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, and Dave Merritt. Please contact YJLC@justforkidslaw.org for access to the replay videos.
In our first session on Girls, we heard from Saffron, an advocate on behalf of young women who get caught up in the criminal justice system and a former Just for Kids Law client. She told her story of how, as a 16-year-old, she was arrested after being asked to hold a package for an older man from her neighbourhood whom she came to trust after they began a relationship, unaware that the package contained a gun. She reflected on how the court proceedings were intimidating and difficult to understand: “As I appeared in court more, it was just to be there, I didn’t really know what was going on.”
Speaking about how the experience of girls differs from that of boys in the youth justice system, Lady Hale noted that women and girls in the criminal justice system have often suffered some sort of abuse or sexual exploitation, pointing to “obvious links between sexual abuse and criminal offending”. With women prisoners also more likely to be imprisoned for minor crimes like theft, Lady Hale observed: “Far more women than men are serving very short sentences which do no one any good”. Recalling a family court case she had heard which involved a girl who was self-harming, Lady Hale shared this poem from the girl: “Before you judge me, try hard to love me. Look within your heart and ask: have you seen my childhood?”.
Baroness Helena Kennedy QC recalled her own experience as a criminal lawyer fighting on behalf of women who get caught up in the criminal justice system for repeated low-level offences like drug offences or shoplifting, highlighting that there is an underlying issue of women not being better supported that must be addressed: “We really have to have a much more creative idea about how to deal with women who end up before the criminal justice system and it shouldn’t be incarceration – that is useless.”
We heard David Lammy MP in conversation with Ryan Matthews, who accused of murder at age 17, spent five years on Louisiana’s death row for a crime he did not commit. Speaking from his experience, Ryan recalled the importance of organisations which support people to reach justice that they have been denied: “We need more organisations [to support] those on low-income and people of colour…they can’t these afford high-paid attorneys.”
“Let’s not call this a criminal justice system, this is a criminal punishment system,” said Temi Mwale, a racial justice campaigner and the Founding Director of The 4Front Project. She argued that a critical focus needs to be paid to what implications the criminal justice system has on people of colour, which are disproportionately represented and impacted by the system. “If we want to rehabilitate people, if we want to resolve issues, if we want to see reduced violence, if we actually want to build peace – this system that generates conflict and harm is not the way that is going to happen. If you want to actually see that future, you have to be actively building it today,” she said.
Highlighting her own working-class heritage, Professor Emerita Geraldine Van Bueren QC, one of the original drafters of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, argued that class discrimination should be expressly eliminated and should become the 10th protected characteristic under the Equality Act. “We’re expected to tackle class-based discrimination without the properly legal tools,” she claimed.
Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of psychology and cognitive neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, spoke about the huge influence that young people’s peer groups have on the decision-making process and claimed that neuroscience doesn’t support the idea that the age of criminal responsibility should be 10 years old.
As a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Ann Skelton spoke about society’s fear when it comes to young people because of the risks they’re prepared to take. She argued for “a system that fully understands that children cannot be held responsible like how adults are held responsible,” noting there must be a focus on diverting children away from the justice system altogether.
Dave Merritt, an outspoken social justice advocate and the father of Jack Merritt, spoke about how Jack’s death in the 2019 London Bridge attack was used to rationalise fear-based discrimination – something he continues to fight against. Dave spoke about his son’s firm and compassionate belief that harsher sentences do not help anyone and how he felt compelled to push Jack’s agenda by speaking out against calls for harsher sentencing which followed the attack.
“Society deems people who’ve been to prison as people who don’t have a place in society,” said Rosca Onya, a rap artist and songwriter. He spoke on the need to begin supporting people from a very young age as criminal exploitation can begin from childhood, pointing to his own experience as a young and vulnerable migrant who was groomed into criminal activity after arriving in the UK.
In the last session on Fear, Professor Kristin Nicole Henning, Director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic at Georgetown Law, called for a new approach to working with children in the criminal justice system which appropriately treats them as children. She argued for more compassion and for a better understanding of child and adolescent behaviour, saying: “We really have to understand adolescent development…they’re impulsive, they take risks, they chase sensations, they care about what their friends think…a lot of what children end up in the legal system [for] is normal adolescent behaviour that we actually don’t criminalise for white youth.” Aika Stephenson, Legal Director and Co-founder of Just for Kids Law, echoed the sentiment saying that while there are some adults who remember what it was like to be a teenager, many don’t remember. “There are some adults who remember what it’s like to be 15 and then there are a whole host of adults that seem to have absolutely forgotten that they were ever a child,” she said, calling on those who work in the criminal justice system to make an effort to remember what it was like to be able to better understand, work with, and represent children and young people.