The Centre's Director, Phil Bowen, responds to the 2021 report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.
Any credible report on racial disparity has to address the role and impact of policing and criminal justice. And yet doing so comprehensively in a report that also has to consider disparities in fields as broad and wide ranging as health, education, employment, and enterprise means that it is only ever going to skim the surface. It’s therefore no surprise that the crime section of the report of the Government’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities was able to embrace only a small number of issues.
That said, it is hard to disagree with the report’s conclusion that we “need to re-establish mutual trust between communities and police service areas.” In coming to that view, it is a useful companion piece to the Lammy Review, which also found that trust was one of the central, overriding issues. Indeed, if we place the Commission’s policing recommendations and the broader criminal justice recommendations of the Lammy review side by side, we have something that approaches a comprehensive strategy for tackling racial disparity.
One obvious implication, if we integrate these and other reviews on racial disparity, is that all justice agencies, and not just the police, have a role to play in re-building trust. This focus on re-building trust is why we have been advocating for some time to kick-start new projects in which our youth offending teams and youth courts work together to enhance young people’s perceptions of fairness when going through the youth justice system. It was why, in a report we published in 2018, we advocated for the court service to adopt an innovative approach 18- to 25-year olds, in which officers of the court would be trained to talk to defendants in clear English (instead of legal jargon), help them navigate the court process and provide signposting after court. That model has not been implemented, despite being endorsed by the Justice Select Committee and having been implemented already in New Zealand.
Similarly, we welcome the report’s recommendation that we must redouble our efforts to direct young people away from entering the criminal justice system (another recommendation that is in lock-step with the Lammy review). Nonetheless, our most recent research, Equal Diversion?, highlights that while diversion is often our first best response to offending, how we deliver it matters. We found that certain existing policies and practices impact how young people, especially those from specific communities such as Black British communities and Traveller communities, end up accessing and engaging with diversion. We also found that the implementation of a number of promising practices, such as enhanced cultural competence, and more well-rounded decision making about who is diverted, are more likely to mean that all children and young people, regardless of background, can be offered a chance to change their behaviour and realise their future potential.
These two examples— how other justice agencies can help build trust and how we improve equal access to and engagement with diversion— both point to the same issue: the need to get on and deliver. In a survey of efforts to tackle racial disparity across common law countries back in 2016, we found that while reviews “succeeded in consciousness raising,” we also found that “(p)redictably, the government responses, and action plans that stem from these reviews, often attract criticism for failing to implement recommendations at all or as intended.”
Instead of more talk and more reviews, we argue for dull, practical things, like expanding and improving diversion, like improving data collection on racial disparity in our court system, like improving how court users engage with the court process. These things may not be bright and shiny, and they may not attract the reams of newspaper print of a new review. But they are all likely to add up to a system that is better able to win the trust of our communities. Building trust to heal the scars of racial disparity in our justice system does not require more reviews— it requires action.