Our annual youth justice statistics, released today, are the first time we have been able to show the impact of COVID-19.
Statistics show that a youth justice system succeeds in reducing the number of children entering the system, reducing the number of children in custody and reducing recidivism rates, but fails flatly in all respects to end the overrepresentation of black children throughout the system.
A broken system for black children
As a black child in England and Wales you are more likely to be stopped and searched, arrested, remanded in custody, sentenced to police custody and to commit another offense within a year. Figures show that black children make up 4% of the population aged 10-17 (census data, 2011) but:
- 18% of stops and searches (when ethnicity was known)
- 15% of arrests
- 12% of children cautioned or sentenced
- 34% of children in pretrial detention
- 29% of the population of young prisoners (compared to 18% ten years ago)
The statistics are shocking, and the disparity continues when you look at recidivism rates, which for black children are 42.4% compared to a rate of 35.3% for white children. So once they’re in the justice system, we still disproportionately fail to give black children the support they need to live a crime-free life. Unfortunately, statistics also show that children of mixed ethnicity are overrepresented at most stages of the system. This includes stop and search, arrests, warnings and sentencing, and custody.
Addressing the Use of Pretrial Detention
Another area that concerns me, and which these figures highlight, is the unacceptable proportion of children in pre-trial detention. On average, 40% of children in detention have not been sentenced and are in pre-trial detention. This is the highest proportion in the last ten years.
Shockingly, nearly three-quarters (74%) of children remanded in custody did not subsequently receive a custodial sentence. This is the highest level ever recorded and means that many children detained today are there needlessly and suffer the trauma and stigma that comes with it. It harms children, their relationships, their opportunities and their identities, which does not improve public safety.
We must prioritize the use of pretrial detention and its disproportionate use with black children. Our research found that after controlling for influences of delinquency, demographics, and practitioner factors, Black children remain less likely to receive community remand (8 percentage points) than their counterparts. whites. We are working with various partners to address this issue quickly, but there must be a collective effort to find and use less damaging and more effective ways to protect children and communities.
Long-term trends or pandemic impact?
We must approach the analysis of this 2020/21 data with some caution due to the impact of COVID-19 on courts and policing. However, it is clear that many of the long-term trends we hoped would continue during the pandemic have held. We continued to see declines in the number of children entering the justice system, the number of children who received a caution or sentence, recidivism rates fell again, and the population of youth in custody at its lowest level.
There is a lot to be congratulated here, and my challenge to all is to maintain this and to dare to go further. Let’s continue to find ways to support children safely in the community, invest in the important prevention and diversion work of police, youth justice partners and others, invest upstream and benefit communities that thrive when we meet the needs of vulnerable children early in their lives.
We need to act
It was clear before, but these numbers remind us of the work we need to do collectively to tackle disproportionality, find and use alternatives to pretrial detention, and keep children out of the justice system.
We should not rely on others to fix “their part” of the system. We all need to make a change, and we all need to get up and do something about it. At the YJB, we will continue to champion the important work of early intervention programs, especially for Black children, such as Level the playing field. We will continue to work with the Association of Magistrates on a disparity protocol. We will dig deeper into the reasons for disproportion in the justice system. You can find more information about our work in this area through our Understanding Racial Disparity Report and our research on Ethnic Disproportion in Pre-Trial Custody and Sentencing.
We will continue to invest in reducing the use of pretrial detention. And we will continue to work with partners across the system and beyond to improve opportunities for children in and at risk to enter the justice system.
Behind the data
Statistics will only give us part of the picture of what is happening. Our position as the sole organization overseeing the entire youth justice system means we collect much more than data. We know that behind the data are thousands of people working in youth justice who have exceeded expectations throughout the most trying times of the pandemic. My thanks to them cannot be overstated.
Behind the data, there are also fears that the pandemic has had a huge impact on children, especially those who were already vulnerable. Professionals assessing children in the justice system identify multiple needs – from mental health issues and family to housing and substance abuse. Reduced access to support services, increased trauma and mental illness, fewer opportunities for protection and more opportunities for exploitation online are a worrying reality for everyone in the industry.
We must continue to prioritize and invest in children as early as possible to ensure that children can emerge from the pandemic with a host of opportunities and support.
Above all, we must always remember that youth justice statistics are about children, their lives, their traumas and their needs that we must collectively address. We must also recognize that it is us, as adults, who have the power to create the opportunities and the environment for these children to succeed, and with that, to create safer communities for all.