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How do we become responsive to the needs of BAME young people within the Criminal Justice System?

A local perspective from the North of England by

 Henry Ngawoofah
 Director of Grace Incorporation Faith Trust (GIFT)
 Director of Making Education a Priority CIC (MEaP)

 

On 14th November 2018, I attended a seminar hosted by the Academy for Social Justice Commissioning at Leeds Beckett University. The key note speaker was Jeremy Crook, CEO of the Black Training and Enterprise Group. He is also currently on secondment at the Ministry of Justice.

Jeremy began the presentation with statistics around the reoffending rates of black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) young people which, as of 2016, was 50.6%.  While the number of children and young people in custody from a BAME background has been decreasing, the proportion has been increasing, accounting for 45% of the custodial population in the latest year, whilst only making up 18% of the 10-17 years’ general population.

These statistics, whilst startling, had me asking after the seminar: ‘What more can be done as black men/role models to influence change within the Criminal Justice System for BAME young people?’, ‘Why, despite the falling number of young people entering the CJS, there is still a higher proportion of BAME young people in custody in our prisons?’.

These questions also took me back to my journey, which began 20 years ago when I studied as a law student to qualify as criminal solicitor. However, part-way through my studies, and during my work experience working with young offenders, I realised that by the time I qualified as a solicitor, and provided the support required by young people through the CJS, it was too late in most cases to help them turn their lives around. I also noted the strong correlation between the number of young people I was supporting who had been permanently excluded from school appearing before the courts.

My journey working with young people took a new direction. This is where GIFT was born, a local social enterprise/charity to provide early intervention in community education, mentoring and mediation support to young people and families. Like many BAME-led organisations through recent times, we are faced with the challenges of remaining sustainable and being able to scale up our services to meet the needs of our young people within the CJS.

Some of the ways we have tried to address these issues is to become more focused with collaborative ways of working with local and national partners such as BTEG, and Making Education a Priority (MEaP), a consortium of supplementary schools and community education providers.

At the seminar it became clear from the discussions that there is a need for more collaborative work and cross-sector partnerships within early years’ provisions, schools, health sector and housing, to identify the needs and to capture ‘at risk’ young people to co-ordinate interventions before young people enter the CJS.

In Manchester the MEaP consortium is looking to address this by becoming the first African and Caribbean-led mainstream free school in Greater Manchester, providing culturally specific education and holistic support to all children. Although we recognise that to bring this vision to reality is a long-term aspiration, there are other opportunities available to us. Specifically, for black men/role models to effect change now to help prevent and address the over-representation of BAME young people entering the CJS.

I was recently asked by a parent to provide advocacy support at an appeal hearing for their child following a school exclusion. The decision of the school was upheld, following both the appeal meeting at the school and an ‘independent review’ leading to another young BAME person being permanently excluded. During this process I recognised that all decisions and procedures were being made/upheld by ‘all white’ senior leaders, governors and panel members. Did this collective ‘unconscious bias’ fail to take into account the culturally specific needs of the young person and family? Could more have been done to address the underlying issues impacting the child’s settlement and development within the school?

This also brought back memories of my experience 20 years ago supporting young people within the Youth Court systems and the sentencing towards BAME young people, such as disproportionate custodial sentences. As asked earlier, what are the lessons learned and what are the opportunities for black role models to influence change within the CJS? I believe early intervention and preventative measures are key.  I also believe that more can be done for we black men/role models to get involved with civic positions:

  • We can apply to become school governors to help influence decisions and policies around school exclusions.
  • We can apply to become a magistrate to help influence decisions around sentencing in youth courts to focus more on rehabilitating for young people within their communities.
  • We need more opportunities to enter local politics and secondments opportunities, similar to Jeremy Crook’s, within the public sector.

To lead by example I recently joined a local governing board of a school by applying through the Governors for Schools website. I am now exploring how to become a magistrate. In Manchester we will be holding our first community consultation in November 2018 about our plans for the Free School Nursery and Primary Academy as we prepare our plans for the Department for Education.

Let us continue to be creative and strategically focused, as we cannot afford to let another generation to be failed by our schools and the Criminal Justice Systems.

 

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