Select Committee on Home Affairs Second Report


1. In March 2006, we announced our intention to inquire into the relationship between young black people and the criminal justice system, focusing on the reasons for young black people's overrepresentation in the system. This issue was last considered by a select committee in 1976 and by Lord Scarman in 1981. This inquiry is therefore the first sustained inquiry into the overrepresentation of young black people in the criminal justice system in more than a quarter of a century.

2. Young black people represent fewer than 3% of all 10-17 year olds but constitute 6% of those within the youth justice system—a figure which has remained constant for the past five years.[1] The causes of this overrepresentation, however, remain highly contested—as witnessed by the debate following the Prime Minister's comments that the recent spate of murders in black communities were being caused by a "distinctive black culture."[2] There is fundamental disagreement over the extent to which figures result from discrimination in the criminal justice system, or reflect patterns of offending among young black people. Beyond that, there is no consensus on the extent to which any distinctive offending trends reflect socio-economic disadvantage, or other factors affecting this group.

3. Our aim was to go beyond the statistics and establish whether patterns of criminal behaviour among young black people differ in any significant way from patterns of crime amongst other young people—and whether any significant policies are required to tackle this. The inquiry aimed to establish the full range of possible causes of young black people's overrepresentation in the system.[3] We were also keen to understand the nature and extent of overrepresentation of young black people as victims of some crimes.

4. The Committee did not specify an age-range or attempt to define 'young', as it was keen to be led by the facts rather than prescribing categories. We stated that our focus would be on young people with a cultural background associated with the Census category 'Black or Black British', the categorisation used by the Youth Justice Board.

5. We were acutely aware of the sensitivities in undertaking such an inquiry. The vast majority of young black people are not represented in the criminal justice system. Statistics show, for example, that 85% of young arrestees are white, 6% are black and 3% are Asian.[4] Yet concern has been expressed that black people's involvement in crime can be exaggerated or distorted by the media.[5] We were alert to the possibility that focusing on young black people could reinforce stereotypes about their involvement in crime. To accept the statistics at face value would risk accepting and perpetuating the explanations for the high numbers of young black people in the system put forward by other sources, such as the media. However, to accept or ignore overrepresentation would be to disregard an issue of vital, and growing, significance, for black communities.

6. Recent incidents have thrust violence perpetrated on and by black young people onto the public agenda. In 2000, Damilola Taylor bled to death on a stairwell in Peckham after being stabbed in the leg by a teenager, a killing which a Metropolitan Police Commander said had "sent shockwaves through London and beyond".[6] In 2003, the gunning down of Letisha Shakespeare and Charlene Ellis in Birmingham focused attention on gang feuds. In 2005, the shooting dead of a young black mother at a christening party by a gang of teenage armed robbers in a community centre in Peckham again captured the headlines. In January 2006 the spotlight turned on the death of a white lawyer, Thomas Ap Rhys Price, at the hands of two violent young men, part of a gang who had carried out a 7 month robbery spree. The same year saw the shooting of Jesse James in Moss Side in Manchester, apparently an innocent victim of gang violence. In February 2007, three black teenagers were shot and killed in 11 days in south London. The following month, as this report was being written, two black schoolboys were stabbed to death in London in the space of six days.

7. Black commentators have consistently underlined the unacceptable extent of young black people's involvement with the criminal justice system as both victims and suspects. Lee Jasper, the Director of Equalities and Policing at the Greater London Authority, has described gun crime as "the biggest threat to the black community since its arrival here."[7] Two years ago the Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Philips, warned that there were twice as many black boys in prison as in university.[8]

8. The oral and written submissions we received confounded the suggestion of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College, London that the Committee was taking a "controversial and contested stance".[9] Reverend Nims Obunge, Chief Executive of the Peace Alliance, an organisation working to combat crime and violence among communities in London, said his reaction to the inquiry was:

    "About time. My gut feeling was 'about time' and the feeling that it has been overlooked, undermined, underplayed and has not been given the effective attention it needs. I suppose in local communities it is more obvious. The dream had been that the centre would pick it up and do something with it."[10]

9. Reverend Les Isaacs, founder of the 'Street Pastors' initiative, told us:

    "There is always discussion about how many of our young, particularly boys/men, are in jail. There is also discussion about the issues of why it is that our young boys, in particular, find it very easy to find themselves involved within the gang culture and the crime culture. These discussions are never far from the table."[11]

10. Many other witnesses expressed weariness at constantly discussing the causes of young black people's overrepresentation, and a desire to start implementing solutions.[12]

11. We believed our inquiry could best add value by talking at first hand with agencies and organisations working with young black people on the ground, and young people themselves. We were keen to involve individuals and groups who might not normally consider contributing to select committee inquiries. To do this, we:

a)  Visited youth projects and local criminal justice agencies in Southwark, Bristol, Nottingham and Leeds to speak to young people and practitioners at first hand;

b)  Consulted focus groups of black inmates at Feltham Young Offenders Institution;

c)  Took oral evidence from witnesses including clients of a gang exit programme in Lambeth and a youth inclusion project from Nottingham, and representatives of the music industry and community groups seeking to combat violence. A full list of oral evidence witnesses is annexed;

d)  Commissioned focus group research to understand public perceptions of young black people's involvement in the criminal justice system in a number of cities nationwide;[13] and

e)  Considered 71 written submissions from government and public bodies, private companies, not for profit organisations and individuals.

12. We would like to extend our thanks to our specialist advisers Dr Marian FitzGerald and Professor Ben Bowling, who gave a great deal of their time and provided invaluable advice, information and guidance throughout the inquiry. We are also extremely grateful to all the organisations and individuals who gave their time in hosting visits, coming to speak to us in person or supplying us with written evidence. Special thanks go to the Young Positive Advocates, the youth arm of the Metropolitan Black Police Association, for their thought-provoking DVD on relations between young black people and the criminal justice system.

1   Ev 376 Back

2   'Blair blames spate of murders on black culture', The Guardian, 12 April 2007 Back

3   'Committee announces inquiry into young black people and the criminal justice system', Home Affairs Committee Press Notice, Session 2005-06, Back

4   Home Office, Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System-2005, July 2006, p 77 Back

5   Ev 211 Back

6   'Brothers Guilty of Damilola Death', The Guardian, 9 August 2006 Back

7   'Gun crime 'threat' to UK minorities', BBC News Online, 17 May 2003, Back

8   'We must tackle failure of black boys', The Guardian, 31 May 2005 Back

9   Ev 221 Back

10   Q 62 Back

11   Q 66 Back

12   Q 359 Back

13   See para 86 below. Back

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Prepared 15 June 2007