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Children imprisoned on remand – the stark reality of racial bias

Penelope Gibbs
05 Nov 2021

Transform Justice has been tracking the ethnicity of the children remanded in London for the last eighteen months. For most of this time nine out of every ten children remanded in London have been from minoritized communities. In February 2021 the vast majority – three quarters – were black even though black children only make up 18% of London’s under 18 year old population. The latest figures show a slight improvement – 59% of London children on remand are black. But the disproportionality is still stark. And still shameful. Particularly since recent YJB research shows that those who are remanded are more likely to be sentenced to imprisonment.

The disproportionality of the national and London child remand population has been getting worse in recent years and no-one can really pinpoint why. What we do know from our London data is that the problem starts earlier – the children detained post charge by the Metropolitan police have more or less the same ethnic profile as those remanded by the court. And from the YJB report we know that black and mixed heritage children are more likely to be remanded by the court than children of other ethnicities after controlling for demographics and offence related factors. This report puts paid to two reasons often put forward for the disproportionate number of black boys on remand and sentenced to imprisonment – that black and mixed heritage children are accused and commit more serious crimes and that disparity is really about class not race.

new report by the Inspectorate of Probation throws some light on why we have made so little progress in resolving this wicked problem. As does research by a Dutch academic Dr Yannick van den Brink who observed youth remand hearings and interviewed youth offending team staff. The Inspectorate is pretty damning about YOTs’ management of black and mixed heritage boys on court orders. They found that the boys had high needs including for education – 60% had been excluded from school, the majority permanently. Half the boys had experienced racial discrimination, and the Inspectorate suggests practitioners are not exploring the implications of that discrimination for boys’ offending. Though work meetings were a safe space, “staff did not always raise concerns when they felt that children had been discriminated against, for example in relation to stop and search activity. An example of this was the case of a boy who was being stopped and searched five times per week and, while the case manager thought this was concerning and that the child was being targeted, it was not raised with colleagues or managers. This lack of attention and escalation could suggest that black and mixed heritage boys in the youth justice system experiencing racism may have become normalised, not only to the boys themselves, but also to those working with them”.

The Inspectorate suggests that practitioners may be afraid to question and put pressure on black and mixed heritage boys when that is the only kind of intervention the boys appreciated. “Honesty and transparency were considered to be important elements of the support received from YOS workers. However, the boys did not feel that this always happened. They felt that attending the YOS was a better option than going to custody, but that they did not always feel challenged or stretched by the interventions they received. This reflected what we saw in much of the casework we inspected. There was often an absence of the difficult conversations that are necessary to support children to consider their life experiences and the impact these have had on them, their identity, their thinking and their behaviour”.

Part of the answer is to give practitioners the training and confidence to understand the ramifications of discrimination and to try to tackle it. One area of clear discrimination is the “adultification” of black and mixed heritage boys. Court staff and judges can have a stereotypical view of vulnerability “It is way easier to convince people of this when the child is tiny, White, with blond hair: ‘look at him, he is so small’. But if he is 6 foot 2 and Black and big, people just have different reactions to them … He was challenged all over the place, particularly by the cell staff: ‘why is he vulnerable?’ But what does vulnerable look like? It apparently doesn’t look like him” (Yot officer).

The YOT officers interviewed for Yannick’s research felt discrimination in the court could just arise from ignorance. Frequently there is no black or mixed race magistrate on the panel and misguided assumptions can be made “a magistrate who comes from ‘Suburbia’, who is not used to Black people or whatever, it is not that they are deliberately going to make decisions that are biased towards a Black child, but they may not necessarily understand the reasons why this child is now living with an uncle and why dad is living in Nigeria. But to an African family, that’s no problem…. So if a kid like that comes into court and says ‘I am living with my uncle’, the magistrates might think ‘that is irresponsible’ [from a White, Western perspective], while to us that is the ultimate responsibility! (Yot officer of Nigerian heritage)”.

The road to reducing disproportionality in the youth justice system is long but navigable. The Inspectorate makes clear recommendations including for YOTs and children’s services to understand their own data, make a plan and communicate it to all staff. “Most staff knew that addressing disproportionality was a priority but many were not aware of a stated vision or specific approach that they should be considering in their day-to-day practice”. It would also be good if the key data were published. The government publishes monthly data on the number of children in custody in England and Wales and their ethnicity, but not the ethnicity of those on remand. Transform Justice has obtained all the London data via freedom of information requests. Now we know six out of ten remanded children in London are black, the disproportionality problem cannot be swept under the carpet.