Increasing overrepresentation of BAME children in custody – despite falls in overall numbers in youth custody
The number of children in custody in England and Wales has fallen to a record low, dropping below 900 in April. Data published by the Ministry of Justice shows the number of young people in custody - in secure children’s homes (SCHs), secure training centres (STCs) and young offender institutions (YOIs) - has fallen to 877. This is a 71.5 per cent reduction from the peak in June 2008, when the number of children in custody stood at 3,072.
But despite the decrease in the overall number of young people in custody the overrepresentation of children who are black, Asian or from an ethnic minority (BAME) background is increasing. In December 2015, 41% of under-18s in custody were BAME. This is up from 30.1% in the same month in 2010.
Commentators have been asking why BAME children are disproportionately represented in youth custody. Naima Sakande of Leap argues that: ‘The controversial application of Joint Enterprise laws may hold some answers. Joint Enterprise makes a person liable to conviction for being present when a serious crime is committed or even for being with a person committing a crime and not attempting to stop it. It has allowed prosecutors to cast a wider net in securing at times provocative and unjustified convictions. The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies report on joint enterprise, gangs and racism released in January 2016 found that 78.9% of BAME people had ‘gangs’ discourse invoked at prosecution, compared with just 38.5% of whites facing the same charge. According to the study, prosecutors are able to invoke racial stereotypes in relation to BAME defendants by using threatening ‘gangs’ language in order to steer a jury towards a conviction.’
The reasons for the disproportionate numbers of children from BAME backgrounds in custody is one of the issues David Lammy MP will investigate as part of his government-commissioned review into discrimination against BAME people in the criminal justice system. The Prime Minister said the review would address ‘possible sentencing and prosecutorial disparity’. He added: ‘if you’re black it seems you’re more likely to be sentenced to custody for a crime than if you’re white. We should investigate why this is and how we can end this possible discrimination.’ CRAE welcomes, and will be engaging with, David Lammy’s review.