CHURCHES should rise to the challenge of preventing young people from entering the criminal justice system, and facilitate community-based rehabilitation and justice, priests said this week, in response to a new report which highlighted that 40 per cent of young people in custody are from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.
The Lammy Review — an independent review of the treatment of, and outcomes for, BAME individuals in the Criminal Justice System (CSJ) — published last week, concluded that BAME individuals “still face bias — including overt discrimination — in parts of the justice system”.
The author, the Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, argues that while progress has been made in society, the CJS “bucks the trend”. Despite making up just 14 per cent of the population, BAME men and women make up 25 per cent of prisoners. His “biggest concern” is with the youth justice system. He notes that, over the last five years 22,000 BAME children have had their names added to the Police National Database, including for minor offences, imperiling their future job prospects.
“Behind many young offenders are adults who either neglect or exploit them,” he writes. “The youth justice systems appear to have given up on parenting.” Last year, just 189 parenting orders were issued. Many parents “feel helpless about their children being exploited and drawn into criminality.”
“The factors behind BAME over-representation begin long before a guilty plea, court appearance, or prison sentence,” Mr Lammy said last week. “Communities must take greater responsibility for the care and development of their people — failing to do so only damages society as a whole.”
Among his 35 recommendations is that youth-offender panels should be renamed Local Justice Panels, which would take place in communities and have “a stronger emphasis on parenting, involve selected community members, and have the power to hold other local services to account for their role in a child’s rehabilitation”.
The Bishop to Prisons, the Rt Revd James Langstaff, who is Bishop of Rochester, said this week that churches were “well placed” to facilitate these. The report evidenced “what I think a lot of people kind of knew at gut level was the case: there is a hugely disproportionate presence of BAME people, especially young people, within the CSJ.” The Church had a part to play in addressing the challenge, he said, “not least because many of these people who have found themselves in this situation will be people who at various stages in life have got church connections”.
The report also calls for the roll-out of a “deferred prosecution” model, allowing low-level offenders to receive targeted rehabilitation before entering a plea. Those successfully completing rehabilitation programmes would see their charges dropped. On Tuesday, the Bishop of Kensington, Dr Graham Tomlin, said that chaplaincies and prison ministries could play a helpful part in this, and churches with a “good multi-ethnic mix can play an especially significant role in this process”.
The Vicar of St Matthew’s, Borstal, the Revd Anne Bennett, a former chaplain at Cookham Wood, a Young Offenders Institution, said that the report made “uncomfortable reading”.
The report painted a “bleak picture of growing up as a young black person”, she said. “Young people who have been systematically failed by the adults around them are held solely responsible for their crimes.” The Church had “much to offer”, including parenting support, advocacy, and practical help for disaffected young people.
“Getting young youth off the streets and into decent youth clubs is a small step, but one we can and should be doing. A gospel of hope and love can stand up against the bleak cycle of offending and reoffending, offering as it does an affirmation of every person’s unique value.” Priests must “speak truth to power, speaking out against poverty, racism, and the systematic failures of our public services, and standing up for young people in care and in custody.” They should remember and visit young people in prison, offer support on release, and engage in community chaplaincy. “We must address the fact that the church itself does not model equality and our own senior ranks are disproportionately white and male,” she added.
A key finding is that the rate of BAME defendants are more likely to plead guilty in Crown Courts than white defendants, which is attributed to their having more confidence in the fairness of juries than in that of magistrates’ courts. “Throughout this review, I met offenders — mostly Black young men – who described how they regretted their initial not-guilty plea,” writes Mr Lammy.
The report says that many BAME prisoners “believe they are actively discriminated against, and this is contributing to a desire to rebel rather than reform”. Part of the answer, Mr Lammy suggests, is addressing the lack of diversity among prison officers. Sentencing remarks should be made public, he suggests, to “demystify decision-making processes”.
Dr Tomlin, who is a regular visitor to London prisons, said: “I accept that more could be done to build trust with BAME offenders.”
The report highlights that, overall, the charging decisions taken by the CPS are “broadly proportionate”, that BAME staff account for 19 per cent of its staff, and that juries — including all white juries — do not deliver different results for BAME and white defendants.