Exploring ethnicity, care experience and justice systems involvement

Some groups are over-represented in the youth and adult criminal justice systems

While most children in care (for example, in foster care or children’s homes) do not come to the attention of the criminal justice system, there are a minority who do. Published Department for Education (DfE) data suggests that children in care are disproportionately represented among those who receive a caution or conviction, although this data does not cover all care-experienced children. Children in care make up less than 1% of the general population but over half of all children in youth custody have care experience. Up to a third of individuals in adult prisons have been in care as children.

Evidence also shows that individuals from ethnic minority backgrounds are disproportionately represented in both youth and adult criminal justice systems. This is a longstanding issue which has intensified in the last decade. In 2020, over half of all children in youth custody identified as having an ethnic minority background compared to 25% in 2008. There is also evidence of considerable crossover between these groups. The Laming Review estimated that 44% of all care-experienced children in custody come from an ethnic minority background.

Currently, the government does not publish information about how many children in its care become involved with the youth justice system or enter youth custody. Moreover, the government does not have reliable information about the number of care-experienced individuals currently in the adult criminal justice system. Before the Data First programme, there was no easily accessible data in the UK which outlined the ethnicity of care-experienced individuals who become justice system-involved.

Administrative data research can help fill this knowledge gap

My Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)-funded PhD research found that ethnic minority children in care experience a ‘double whammy’ of disadvantage in relation to youth justice involvement. However, the lack of official data meant I was unable to determine the extent of their over-representation within justice systems.

The newly linked datasets from DfE and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) mean it is now possible to analyse the relationship between ethnicity, care experience, and criminal justice involvement. My ADR UK Fellowship will use these new datasets from DfE and MoJ with the support of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Secure Research Service (SRS). I’m conducting my research at Lancaster University with the guidance of two mentors: Dr Claire Fitzpatrick and Professor Brian Francis. Barnardo’s is also supporting this research as part of their Care Journeys programme of work.

What I hope to achieve with my research

My research aims to fill an important gap in knowledge about the intersections between ethnicity and care experience in relation to criminal justice involvement. In doing so, this fellowship has three broad goals:

  1. To investigate the proportion of individuals with experience of care and justice systems, and to find out whether this involvement varies according to ethnicity.
  2. To compare sentence length for care-experienced and non-care-experienced individuals, and whether this varies by ethnicity.
  3. To investigate the association of factors (such as gender, legal status or care placement history) with the number of convictions for care-experienced individuals, and whether this varies by ethnicity.

The key outcome of the research will be a greater understanding of how care experience and ethnicity interact with justice system involvement in England.

How could this impact policy?

This Fellowship comes at a time when ethnicity and care experience are key issues in criminal justice policy. Since the publication of the Laming Review, the link between care experience and justice system involvement has received significant policy attention. For example, the DfE, Home Office and MoJ published a national protocol on reducing the unnecessary criminalisation of children in care and care leavers.

Similarly, the Lammy Review shone a spotlight on the over-representation of Black and minoritised individuals in the justice system. The review led to a detailed response from government which included the Youth Justice Board developing a disproportionality toolkit for practitioners. More recently, the Youth Justice Board analysed their own administrative datasets to find that Black children continue to experience more restrictive remand conditions and harsher sentences.

By bringing together data on care experience and ethnicity, we can better understand the problem of over-representation and address it. The goal is to prevent children and young people becoming involved with justice systems and improve their life chances. Justice systems built on disproportionality perpetuate injustice and we must tackle this to make real change. 

Dr Katie Hunter is an ADR UK-funded Research Fellow using linked MoJ-DfE data made available through Data First.

Find out more about the Fellowship.

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