NOTE ON TERMINOLOGY While this article uses the acronym ‘BAME’ for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic children and young people, we recognise the term can be considered problematic, as it arguably flattens different experiences of the justice system and other racialised social systems between individuals of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. We understand that this term does not refer to a homogenous group of people, and where possible we have attempted to disaggregate data in regards to specific ethnic backgrounds.
New plans announced to improve community confidence in policing in the capital
At the end of last year, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, and new Met Police Commissioner, Mark Rowley, co-launched new plans to tackle racial disproportionality and improve community confidence in policing in the capital. The new measures consist of:
- A partnership panel developed with communities, schools and youth justice services to oversee and inform the work of Safer Schools officers.
- Publishing the Met’s Body Worn Video research.
- Collecting data from Black communities on the lived experiences and interaction they have with police officers.
- Continued focus and support to the Met’s recruitment and outreach work to increase the diversity of the workforce at every rank.
- A dashboard which audits race equality across key aspects of the plan, and draws together wider data sets that explore disproportionality.
These measures build on the 2020 Mayor’s Action Plan, which was developed to increase transparency in police actions and strengthen community involvement in reviewing the disproportionate use of police powers and complaints.
These positive steps have to tread carefully to avoid net widening
It is a positive start to the year to see tackling racial disproportionality firmly on MOPAC’s agenda, as the latest youth justice statistics continue to paint a familiar picture; the proportion of First Time Entrants from a Black background has increased by 8% over the last ten years. It is striking that the welcome advancements in the reduction of FTEs in the youth justice system have been less likely to benefit Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) children and young people.
The Mayor’s action plan to address these trends in London is right to focus on increasing diversity in the Met to better reflect the city it serves. This was an important finding from our conversations about racial disparity with practitioners in the youth justice system, who highlighted the importance of having a diverse workforce that understands the needs and cultures of the communities they work with.
While we have seen how multi-agency working can bring greater accountability to the decisions made by the police and reduce bias, we are also aware of the net widening risks is can carry. It is this issue that has led the Runnymeade Trust to raise concern about Safer Schools Officers, which MOPAC’s plans intend to enhance, being located to a greater degree in schools where there are higher numbers of Black and ethnic minority students, and inadvertently drawing more children into the system from this background. Despite the intentions of the MOPAC initiative, the evidence on net widening calls into question whether these concerns can ever be mitigated, and whether the attention and investment can be better spent elsewhere. Justice agencies should intervene only following an offence, and not encroach on spaces where education and pastoral responses can offer a better and less damaging alternative.
Utilising diversion to address racial inequality in the justice system
The Runnymeade Trust call for greater investment in pastoral, mental health and youth service provision delivered by local authorities and schools to safeguard and support children. When considering where to focus the justice system, research strongly indicates that unequal treatment early in the system accumulates into larger disparities downstream. While there remains a dearth of research on this subject in England and Wales, Government data shows that children from a BAME background in 2021 made up 31% of arrests and 60% of custodial remands, despite representing just 18% of all 10-17 year olds. The Youth Justice Board estimate that black children are twice as likely to receive a custodial sentence as a white child. Diversion schemes provide an opportunity to address these disproportionate outcomes, by minimising contact with the formal criminal justice system and the impact of a criminal record on future employment and education. While the Centre's research found that diversion practice in England and Wales is not free from the biases and discrimination which occurs across the justice system, our work identified a number of strategies to keep access to diversion and its benefits equitable to children of all backgrounds.
David Lammy in his landmark review of racial disproportionality in the justice system in 2017 saw the potential for diversion schemes to help address unequal outcomes, particularly where an admission of guilt is not required to participate. The review found that the lack of trust some people from BAME communities have in the criminal justice system renders them less likely to admit an offence or plead guilty at court, in effect barring them from being diverted. Lammy’s recommendation to trial new forms of diversion, styled as deferred prosecution, was taken forward by the Ministry of Justice through their Chance to Change pilots for under 18s in two sites, including one in North West London. While this pilot has now come to an end, the interim evaluation report is expected to be released this year, which we hope will bring a much needed refresh to the evidence base and keep the momentum going for diversion in and out of London.
Drug diversion schemes offer a particularly compelling way of reducing inequalities in the justice system, especially considering how confidence in policing is in crisis. Ministry of Justice data shows that people from minoritised communities are disproportionately likely to have contact with the police, especially around drugs. Drug diversion reframes this punitive encounter into a positive outcome by minimising the intervention of the police and courts, and maximising support for that young person and their families. We made the case in our recent briefing for introducing a presumption toward the use of diversion for drug offences involving both children and adults. With both Mark Rowely and Sadiq Khan having spoken out in support of these schemes, we are hopeful to see their evolution in London in the future.
While diversion provides better opportunities for children who reach the point of arrest, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that not all children are policed equally, and some are more likely to reach this point in the first place. As such, diversion must be developed in tandem with measures that work to address over-policing of these communities in the first place, which the MOPAC’s plans touch on.
Understanding and addressing racial disparity is an important part of the Centre’s work building a fairer and work effective justice system. We look forward to working with MOPAC on developing new guidance and a minimum standards protocol to help increase the use of out of court disposals for children from overrepresented ethnic minorities in London. Sign up to our youth diversion bulletin to keep updated with this project and related areas of our work.