Black young men are far more likely to come into
contact with the criminal justice system than White young men. Tom Lloyd
looks at why such an imbalance exists.
Youth justice — rough justice
Diamond is 15, Black and from Peckham in south London.
Once he saw a White young man arrested for swearing at a police officer.
The youth was given a stern talking to and released. When Diamond did
the same thing, he got a three-month referral order. Diamond doesn't
know the exact circumstances of the White young man's arrest, but he is
pretty sure White people are treated differently from Black people. It
could be a question of perception, but figures from the Youth Justice
Board seem to back up his theory (see box below).
The statistics reveal an imbalance in the way the
criminal justice system handles people from different ethnic
backgrounds, but not why such a discrepancy exists. The kneejerk
reaction is to talk about institutional racism in the police and
discrimination against ethnic minorities in general, but although this
is undoubtedly a factor, it is not the first thing that most people who
work with Black young men say when asked about their treatment. Uanu
Seshmi runs the From Boyhood to Manhood Foundation, which works with
Black young men in south London who have been, or are likely to be,
excluded from school. He says: “I don't want to talk about racism. The
truth is that for many Black young boys the lifestyle they choose turns
out to be related to antisocial behaviour. It is a lifestyle choice.”
Seshmi says aspects of Black street culture lead young men into crime.
Racism, he says, is used as an excuse to turn against society and
embrace a lawless but fashionable way of life.
Anthony Thomas, the director of the Hip Hop Generation think-tank, which
looks at social and economic issues around race, also sees the desire
for a better lifestyle as a driver for crime. But he says society as a
whole is to blame for this because Black young people are more likely to
grow up in impoverished areas than White young people, and are likely to
get less well-paid jobs.
“The money they earn can't support a family,” he says. “Young people
understand this. They see crime as a better avenue.” David Dalgleish,
policy development officer for crime and safety at the Black Londoners
Forum, believes over-policing is also a problem. “These young people
live in very deprived areas,” he argues. “As a result they are policed
at a higher rate than in predominantly White areas.” Dalgleish believes
fear of crime has become disproportionate to real levels, but people are
unwilling to change their views. His view of the situation is bleak. “It
is pretty hard to be a Black young person these days in Peckham, Hackney
or Brixton and see a light at the end of the tunnel,” he says.
Nevertheless, some organisations are trying to improve
the situation. For example, the National Association of Youth Justice (NAYJ)
has set up a Black Youth Justice Forum. Pam Hibbert, deputy chair of the
NAYJ and principal policy officer at Barnardo's, says this will allow
practitioners working with Black young people to share ideas that will
feed into the campaigning work of the organisation and lead to open
discussion of an issue White people are often scared to address for fear
of appearing racist. She believes poverty and discrimination are some of
the problems that need to be addressed. “It is clear from the Youth
Justice Board research that there is discrimination,” says Hibbert. “It
may not be deliberate, but it is still there.” The board is also doing
its bit by requiring youth offending teams to have plans to deal with
Chief executive Ellie Roy says: “This is a major issue for us. We need
prevention and community involvement, as well as constructive engagement
by professionals in the field.”
A pioneering example of this is the Metropolitan Black Police
Association's Youth Leadership Programme. One of its key aims is to
develop young people so they can challenge statutory agencies such as
the police. The project works with 14- to 17-year-olds and was set up in
Paddington, although it has now been expanded to other areas of London.
Sandra White, education co-ordinator at the association, says it could
be rolled out across London in the next two years. It helps to educate
officers about Black young people, as well as the other way round. One
exercise involves practising stop and search. White says officers are
often surprised by the hostile reaction of young people. “It brings to
life the reality of the situation,” she says. One group of young people
who have passed through the scheme have set up Young Black Positive
Advocates, which tries to break down the barriers between young people
and the police. Dalgleish says the group does excellent work, but it
should not have to: “I question a society in which 15-year-olds are left
to do work that the Government and the police should be doing.” A number
of other projects around the UK work with Black young men more
generally. These are usually based around standard youth work policies
such as engagement, but also have a crime-avoidance message.
In Peckham, the From Boyhood to Manhood Foundation has
been working with Black young men since 1996 (see Young people's voices
Seshmi says there can be a link between exclusion from
school and crime, although he adds that exclusion can have the positive
effect of forcing individuals to assess their own behaviour. He argues
that Black young men often commit crimes because they feel they have
been wronged, but need help to understand the effects of their actions.
Seshmi says teachers need to receive better training about the needs of
Black pupils. “They should do more work with voluntary groups and more
training,” he says. The Youth Justice Board's figures are worrying. They
do not show that the criminal justice system is inherently racist, but
they do suggest elements within it are. What they hint at is a
complicated problem that goes right to the heart of society. As the
Black Londoners Forum and Hip Hop Generation think-tank point out,
poverty is still a major driving force behind crime and heavy-handed
policing still targets the problem without addressing the cause. And for
young men such as Diamond, the statistics reflect an everyday reality.
Young people's voices
What Black young people at the From Boyhood to Manhood Foundation in
Peckham, south London, think about the police
I came from Jamaica in the summer. It's all right here, but I don't like
the weather. From Boyhood to Manhood is a good centre. I wasn't kicked
out of school, I'm just here because I missed the start of the year.
I've been in trouble, but just for silly things. A lot of the time I
wasn't doing anything. It's good here at From Boyhood to Manhood — it
keeps our heads straight. Samson, 15
I think the police do their job. Black people do
commit more crime. From Boyhood to Manhood helps you to get back into
school. Leon, 14
I don't like the police because they pull me up all
the time. They stop me more than they would if I was White. I've been in
trouble with them a couple of times. Some of them are racist, but not
all of them. Ruben, 15
If one Black boy gets in trouble for a big thing, they
think everyone else is involved. This centre is the only place that can
help me out. These people will back me up 100 per cent. Diamond, 15.
A DISCRIMINATORY JUSTICE
The Youth Justice Board (YJB)
published Differences or Discrimination on ethnic minority
young people in the youth justice system this July.
Key findings included:
Seventeen per cent of the
young men in the sample were Black. Only six per cent of
the UK population is from an ethnic minority
The chances of a
mixed-race young man being prosecuted were 2.7 times
higher than a White young man
Twenty-six per cent of
Black young men were given a more restrictive form of
community sentence, compared with 21 per cent of White
Black young men were
nearly seven times more likely to receive a sentence
longer than 12 months at a Crown Court than White young
Ethnicity was not
recorded in seven per cent of cases. The YJB described
the monitoring of ethnicity as "unsatisfactory"
The report concluded there
are big differences in the way young people from different
ethnic backgrounds are treated. It noted that "there were,
at various points of the processes, differences that were
consistent with discriminatory treatment".
3 November 2004