Black History Month – The Criminal Justice System

Posted on: 28 October 2021

Some things have stayed consistent throughout the history of black people in the UK. One of these is the over-policing and disproportionate representation of black men in the carceral justice system.

In the wake of HMI Probation Thematic Inspection report released this week, we see these roots carrying through to the current experiences of black and mixed-race young men and boys in the youth justice system. In our own work in prisons, the community and our day centre, we address daily the consequences on those young people’s mental health and life chances.

So what are some of the numbers behind this consistent lived experience of black Londoners? Well, for a starter:

  • Black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, and six time more likely when driving. This is eighteen times more likely under Section 60, the power that allows the police not only to stop and search on reasonable suspicion but also permits suspicion-less searches. Most forces still can’t adequately explain why there is disproportionality in the way these powers are used.
  • Black people are 5.7 times more likely to have force used on them than white people. Officers are also 9 times more likely to draw a weapon like a taser (a traumatising experience even if it is not discharged.)
  • Black people are 8 times more likely to be cuffed than white people and over 3 times more likely to have a spit guard (a mesh hood with a plastic face guard) used on them.
  • Black children and young people receive harsher custodial sentences than their white peers.

Not much seems to have changed since the important 2017 Lammy Review on the treatment and outcomes of black and minority ethnic people in the criminal justice system. Little surprise then that 85% of black and minority ethnic people do not believe they would be treated the same as a white person by the courts or police. We hear this from the young people we support too, not infrequently straight after they have been stopped and searched while they were simply on their way to our day centre or an appointment at a housing options service with one of our team.

Recently the government has decided to relaxed the rules on ‘Stop and Search’ as part of its Beating Crime plan. There is however very little evidence that the Section 60 is in any way an effective deterrent, thus leaving in place a still hugely discriminatory practice as well as reinforcing a cycle of over-policing of black communities.

As Wendy Williams, Senior Police Inspector said in February 2021 “The damage caused by these unexplained disproportionalities can be far-reaching and long-lasting. It may lead to more Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people being drawn into the criminal justice system, disrupting their education and family lives, and reducing their work opportunities. Furthermore, it feeds perceptions among the public and police about Black people and crime and may also influence how the police allocate and deploy resources. This in turn exacerbates the imbalances in the criminal justice system.” Clearly, the racism embedded in policing, whether intentionally or not, was built by people, policies and practices, and can therefore be dismantled.

“The damage caused by these unexplained disproportionalities can be far-reaching and long-lasting. It may lead to more Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people being drawn into the criminal justice system, disrupting their education and family lives, and reducing their work opportunities.”

Wendy Williams, Senior Police Inspector

It’s important to acknowledge here that often when we’re talking about police involvement we’re not just speaking about responses to violent or criminal activity, either real or suspected, but policing being used as a substitute for community care in mental health crises. We know that when a Black person is in crisis that they are more likely to have the police called on them than receive mental health treatment. Black people are also four times more likely to be detained under Mental Health Act.

The HMI Probation report on the experience of black boys in the youth justice system published this week resonates the lack of the intervention that people from the black community need and the particularly huge challenges they face. Half of the boys in the inspected cases had faced racial discrimination in their life; a third had been victims of criminal exploitation and a quarter had a disability. It’s even harder to avoid risks or leave a cycle of offending or an exploitative situation if you’re experiencing poor mental health or are being treated like a criminal.

As Chief Inspector of Probation Justin Russell summarised in the report: “Youth justice staff told us the majority of Black and mixed heritage boys that they work with have multiple and complex needs, for example with education or emotional and mental health issues. Yet many of these children are only receiving support with these needs for the first time through the criminal justice system. This is simply unacceptable.”

Frustratingly, pending new legislation is likely to aggravate the racism these children and young people face. As the Alliance for Youth Justice (AYJ) has demonstrated, the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill will exacerbate the racial disparities in the criminal justice system and would also further undermine trust and fairness.

We agree. It is one of the reasons why we are working with the AYJ and other partners to raise the alarm about this and call for the related PSCS clauses to be removed. And both the overrepresentation of black people, particularly men and boys, could be tackled with better housing and homelessness provision, sustainable mental health care and proper investment in services and systems in ways that dismantle racism.

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