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Ethnic disproportionality in youth justice

Youth Justice Board finds all minority ethnic groups more likely to be remanded in custody.

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Disproportionality in remand and sentencing

Last week (21 January 2021) the Youth Justice Board, under the leadership of its new Chair Keith Fraser, published a report into Ethnic disproportionality in remand and sentencing in the youth justice system. The report uses two years of the YJB’s case management and assessment data to better understand the extent of ethnic disproportionality in remand and sentencing outcomes (including formal out-of-court disposals).

The research

Like all research, the study was constrained by the data available. Nonetheless, this is a large scale study using both case management records (gender, ethnicity, age, local area, offence history, nature of the offence and offence seriousness and remand and sentence outcomes) and ASSETPlus assessment information (the likelihood of reoffending, safety and wellbeing assessments, concerns, risk of serious harm (ROSH) score, care history, etc.). The research looked at all official data recorded by Youth Offending Teams between October 2017 and December 2019 – a total of 89,679 children. Out of these, 24,544 children had a remand outcome recorded and 62,269 children were sentenced or received an out-of-court disposal. In addition, for the same time period, AssetPlus records included 95,644 assessments pertaining to 35,766 children.

Main findings – Ethnicity

Compared to White children convicted of an offence, all minority ethnic groups are more likely to be male. They are convicted of offences with a higher average severity, offences that are more likely to involve a knife, and their cases are more likely to be heard at Crown Court. Black and Mixed ethnicity children have on average more previous orders (court sentences/disposals) than White children, whereas Asian and children of Other ethnicities receive fewer.

Practitioner assessments suggest Black and Mixed ethnicity children are assessed as both higher risk and more vulnerable. Black children are most likely, and children of Mixed ethnicity are second most likely, to be assessed as at a high likelihood of reoffending, at risk of serious harm and have greater concerns over their safety and wellbeing. Findings suggest fewer differences for Asian and Other ethnic groups, however, Asian children were the least likely to have serious concerns raised over their safety and wellbeing and their likelihood of reoffending.

Remand

Children were more likely to receive custodial remand if they were male, older, non-local residents, committed more serious offences, or were judged as having a higher likelihood of reoffending, a greater risk of serious harm or safety and wellbeing concerns or their cases were heard at Crown Court.

All minority ethnic groups were more likely to receive custodial remand and less likely to receive community remand9 compared to White children. In most cases these disproportionate outcomes could be largely explained by differences in offending profiles and demographics.

However, once the YJB controlled for demographics and offence-related factors, children of Mixed ethnicity and Black children remained more likely to get custodial remand (5 and 7 percentage points, respectively), and Black children remained less likely to get community remand compared to White children (9 percentage points). The remaining disproportionality could be partially or entirely explained by differences in practitioner assessments of risk and wellbeing of Black and Mixed ethnicity children compared to White children.

However, even after taking into account the influence of offending, demographics, and practitioner assessments, Black children remained less likely to receive community remand (8 percentage points).

Sentencing

Children were more likely to receive custodial sentences if they were: male, older, non-local residents, committed more serious or knife-involved offences, or had more previous orders or higher likelihood of reoffending. Custodial sentences were also more likely if they were judged as at higher risk of serious harm, given a custodial sentence proposal, had been remanded into custody or their cases were heard at Crown Court.

Compared to White children, in almost all cases, Black, Asian and Mixed ethnic groups were more likely to receive harsher sentences. Disproportionality for children of Other ethnicities was only observed for out-of-court-disposals which they were less likely to receive compared to White children. Demographics and offence-related factors (such as court type, offence and age) accounted for much of the disproportionality in legal outcomes.

However, the reduced likelihood of Black, Asian and Mixed ethnicity children receiving an out-of-court-disposal compared to White children could not be fully accounted for by differences in their demographic and offending profile or by the YOT they reside in.

Differences in demographics and offence-related factors could only partly explain why Black children received harsher outcomes. They remained between 2 and 10 percentage points less likely to receive a first-tier outcome and between 2 and 8 percentage points more likely to receive a custodial sentence vs a Youth Rehabilitation Order (YRO) after accounting for differences in all factors. Disproportionality in remand outcomes for Black children appears to contribute to their disproportionate likelihood of receiving custodial sentences. Differences in practitioner assessments of Black children, also appear to contribute to their harsher outcomes. The extent of disproportionality for Black children could not be fully explained by the available variables.

Conclusions

Differences that are observed in the types of outcomes or their harshness, can in many cases, be explained by the differences in demographic characteristics, offences and offence history, location (YOT) and court type.

However, taking into account demographics and offence-related factors does not always explain disproportionality. There are three disproportional outcomes that such factors (YOT, type of offence, offence history, court type and demographic characteristics) cannot fully explain. The YJB found that:

  • There are more restrictive remand outcomes for Black and Mixed ethnicity children;
  • There are fewer out-of-court disposals for Black, Asian and Mixed ethnicity children;
  • There are harsher court sentences for Black children.

 

However, in some of these cases, differences in remand decisions and/or practitioner-assessed factors further explain the disproportionality.

  • Remand decisions are disproportional and disproportionality in remand decisions, in some cases, translates into disproportionality in sentencing, even when controlling for the nature of the offence. For example, being remanded into custody increases the likelihood that a custodial sentence will be imposed.
  • Both remand decisions and legal outcomes are affected by practitioner assessments. This means that any potential bias in practitioner assessments of risk and vulnerability translates into disproportionality in both remand and sentencing outcomes.

The overall conclusion is that:

Black children are still more likely to receive harsher sentences.

This research helps the JYB to identify key issues, particularly practitioner assessments of children from non-white backgrounds. It does not, of course, shed a light on the other areas where disproportionality occurs, such as arrests, plea, or custodial placements. 

We must hope that the police, CPS, courts and probation service follow the YJB’s lead in taking a long hard look at the detail of where disproportionality – or institutional racism – within their organisations.

 

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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