The racial bias in our justice system is creating a social timebomb | David Lammy

My review reveals the prejudice that black and minority ethnic children face. We’ve had enough talking - we must act on this issue urgently

When David Cameron asked me to conduct a review into the over-representation of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) individuals in the criminal justice system, I thought I was being set up to fail. So many of the causes of, and answers to, the problem lie outside the criminal justice system: poverty, lone-parent families, school exclusions, and growing up in the care system. And what more is there left to say about stop and search?

But having looked at the evidence over the past 18 months, my judgment is that we have a significant problem in the criminal justice system itself, and that the treatment of BAME young people shows this problem is getting worse.

Minority ethnic children make up a growing proportion of those offending for the first time, reoffending, and serving custodial sentences. Today 41% of under-18s in custody are from minority backgrounds, compared with 25% a decade ago. Young black people are now nine times more likely to be in youth custody than young white people. I expected to find the youth justice system laser-focused on this issue. Instead, I have seen large parts of the system indifferent to issues of race.

The best schools can tell you immediately how children from different backgrounds are achieving – and who is falling behind. They use data to inform practice and track progress. This sense of urgency has been missing in youth justice. Unless something changes, this cohort will become the next generation of adult offenders.

Black boys are more than 10 times as likely as white boys to be arrested for drug offences. But behind these young people are adults. Last year, nearly three-quarters of police forces arrested under-16s for selling crack, heroin or cocaine. These drugs come from somewhere. Vulnerable children are being preyed on. Parents feel powerless about their children being drawn into street crime under duress. We – police, prosecutors, policymakers and the press – need to focus more on the hardened criminals who are moving weapons around our country and sending youngsters out to push drugs. The government’s modern slavery legislation must be used to prevent the exploitation of vulnerable children.

This is not about letting offenders off – precisely the opposite. More enforcement must be focused on powerful adults, further up criminal hierarchies

A third of young people in custody have spent time in the care system, and a similar proportion have mental health issues. Nearly half arrive with substance misuse problems. But these problems are not being picked up as often for minority ethnic children as white children. BAME children in custody are less likely to be recorded as having substance misuse concerns, to be at risk of self-harm, to have learning difficulties, to have mental health concerns, to be disengaged from education, and to have problematic family relationships. The pattern is too consistent to ignore. It is hard not to conclude that minority youngsters face bias in our criminal justice system.

When children leave custody they need family support more than anything else. But the youth justice system appears to have given up on parenting. Last year, 55,000 young offenders were found guilty in the courts. Just 189 parenting orders were issued to provide challenge and support for the parents of young offenders. Only 60 involved BAME young people. If parenting orders are not working then they need to be replaced by something that does.

Most of all, young people need a different future to aspire to, but our criminal records regime is holding them back. Half of employers would not consider employing someone with a criminal record. But over the past five years 22,000 minority ethnic children have had their names added to the national police computer database. There should be more flexibility. As in parts of the US, there should be an opportunity for ex-offenders to come before a judge, or an organisation like the parole board, to apply to have records sealed in all but the most serious cases.

The disproportionate number of BAME young people in the justice system is a social timebomb. It is beyond time to stop talking about this problem and to act.

The Lammy review of the treatment of, and outcomes for, BAME individuals in the criminal justice system is published today

• David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham and the former minister for higher education


David Lammy

The GuardianTramp

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