The most recent Youth Justice Statistics (2020/21) highlight the continued ethnic inequalities in the youth justice system which negatively impact children and young people’s lives. In this blog we dig deeper behind these new statistics; considering some of the challenges of working with ethnicity data and how data can inform approaches to managing disparities.
Disparities in Youth Justice
A quick glance at the Youth Justice 2020/21 statistics initially show positive changes in offending behaviour and management. These include an overall reduction, compared to the previous year, in the number of first time entrants, arrests and children in custody. Covid-19 may have contributed to these changes, with lockdowns and restrictions impacting offending behaviour and service responses. Other explanations could include the use of diversionary interventions to prevent children escalating further into the justice system, although data on diversion remains inconsistent. Data sets over the next few years will provide a more reliable picture of these changes, as services begin to recover from the pandemic.
However not all children and young people have benefitted equally from these positive trends. The statistics indicate that although the number of children receiving a caution or sentence has steadily fallen over the last ten years (82% reduction between 2011 and 2021), the proportion of children from a number of ethnic backgrounds cautioned or sentenced has continued to rise.
For White children these outcomes appear to be moving in the right direction, with the proportion of White children cautioned or sentenced falling by 13% over the last ten years. In stark contrast, the proportion of Black children cautioned or sentenced has risen by 5%, Asian children by 1.7% and Mixed Heritage children by 5.5% in the same ten year period. In recent years this trend remains apparent, with percentage increases for Black, Asian and Mixed Heritage groups recorded between 2019/20 and 2020/21 (approximately 1% per respective group). These disparities do not only affect ethnicity. Between 2011 and 2021, the proportion of girls sentenced or cautioned fell by 8.8% whilst it rose by the same percentage points for boys.
Publications exploring ethnic differences often group different ethnicities into larger aggregated groups. These groups are labelled for example; ‘Black’, ‘Asian’ and ‘White’ or even larger groups such as ‘ethnic minority’ or ‘BAME’. Whilst there are sometimes statistical reasons for doing so, aggregating ethnicity data can lead to the danger of missing key differences between young people from different backgrounds. Exploring these differences can play a crucial role in tackling disparity; promoting a more nuanced understanding of disproportionality and allowing for the development of targeted provisions and interventions that adequately support the needs of young people.
A more detailed look at the Youth Justice data shows interesting differences within aggregated ethnic groups. For example, children from respective Chinese and Pakistani backgrounds are grouped together in the ‘Asian’ category. In the year ending March 2021, the proportion of Pakistani children cautioned or sentenced was 2%. In comparison this figure was 0% for children from a Chinese background. This gives us a clearer understanding that although disproportionality may be an issue for Asian children when treated as an aggregated group, specific ethnicities are affected differently. Exploring in detail also allows us to ask more focused questions in order to find solutions; when we talk about disproportionality in youth justice who specifically are we talking about? And in terms of the cautioning and sentence data why are boys and Mixed Heritage (specifically Mixed White and Black Caribbean) children the most disproportionately affected groups?
These new Youth Justice statistics provide a broad overview of disparities within the youth justice system. But they also highlight the need for further research which hones in on these issues and considers how they are resolved. A recent thematic inspection by HMIP focused on the needs of Black and Mixed Heritage boys, recognising the specific disproportionality of these children in the justice system. The report provided useful insight and examples of good practice to tackle disproportionality, including taking a holistic, child centred approach to interventions. The HMIP report also echoed some of the promising practices we highlighted in our previous disproportionally research, which included:
- Establishing diverse workforces which understand the needs and cultures of the communities they work with.
- Using culturally specific interventions that support the cultural identities of children, young people and families.
- Effective multi agency decision making and oversight to meet the often complex needs of children and young people in the youth justice system.
- Using creative and flexible approaches when working with children and young people, in order to enhance engagement.
Tackling disproportionality in youth justice is a complex problem. Continuing to routinely collect and disaggregate ethnicity data and maintaining a curious approach to exploring the findings, may help us continue to build on solutions.