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 systema figure which has remained constant for
the past five years.
The causes of this overrepresentation, however, remain highly
contestedas 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."
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 peopleand 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. 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.
Yet concern has been expressed that black people's involvement
in crime can be exaggerated or distorted by the media.
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". 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."
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. 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".
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."
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."
10. Many other witnesses expressed weariness at constantly
discussing the causes of young black people's overrepresentation,
and a desire to start implementing solutions.
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,
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;
e) Considered 71 written submissions from government
and public bodies, private companies, not for profit organisations
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
'Blair blames spate of murders on black culture', The Guardian,
12 April 2007 Back
'Committee announces inquiry into young black people and the criminal
justice system', Home Affairs Committee Press Notice, Session
2005-06, www.parliament.uk Back
Home Office, Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System-2005,
July 2006, p 77 Back
Ev 211 Back
'Brothers Guilty of Damilola Death', The Guardian, 9 August
'Gun crime 'threat' to UK minorities', BBC News Online,
17 May 2003, news.bbc.co.uk Back
'We must tackle failure of black boys', The Guardian, 31
May 2005 Back
Ev 221 Back
Q 62 Back
Q 66 Back
Q 359 Back
See para 86 below. Back