It was interesting to read a critical report of the criminal justice system of England and Wales which suggests changes should be made to help guide young offenders – and in particular black and minority-ethnic (BAME) suspects – away from crime.
The review, commissioned by David Cameron when Prime Minister and conducted by the Labour MP David Lammy, has concluded that BAME individuals still face bias, including overt discrimination, in parts of our justice system.
He also concluded that this bias has led to a significant ‘mistrust’ of the system by BAME defendants – young people particularly – which leads to many being denied crucial support and opportunities to choose a different road in life.
Highlighting the mistrust of the system, David Lammy points to how many BAME defendants fear admitting guilt and do not seek reduced sentences pleading early.
Instead, many deny all charges and are then subject to longer sentences when found guilty at trial as a result – a vicious circle which does nothing to build trust or look to rehabilitate.
Lessons to be learned from successful rehabilitation programmes for offenders
Pointing to pilot schemes in New Zealand, California and the West Midlands, the MP has called for prosecutions to be deferred for young suspects to enable them to enter rehabilitation programmes without having to admit their guilt.
Under this approach, those completing programmes would have their charges dropped, but those failing to complete them would still face criminal proceedings.
It is something David Lammy feels should be extended to tackle racism in the system in England and Wales, and should be considered, as any opportunity to keep young offenders out of custody should be welcomed and given careful consideration.
Certainly, successful rehabilitation is a success for society as a whole, and we should strive to avoid suspects ending with a criminal record if it only results in them in being held back in obtaining employment and moving forward in later life.
There is a wealth of material on the negative and damaging impact imprisonment can have on all those detained, especially from ethnic minorities. Prison is often not successful as a deterrent or rehabilitative tool.
Not only are there issues, especially for young offenders in prison, of being at high risk of suicide, bullying and intimidation, it can also lead to further marginalisation and becoming institutionalised in the criminal justice system.
Small changes could help steer young people away from crime
Given there is a high proportion of BAME individuals among young adult prisoners, such a small change could well be the difference between custody and someone growing out of crime and becoming an upstanding member of the community
Other examples to possibly follow include that used in Massachusetts, where offenders who can demonstrate they have reformed and are no longer a threat can petition to have their criminal records expunged, so that they do not need to disclose them on job applications.
Their criminal records are then “sealed” so that judges still have access in case of reoffending – but it does ensure those looking to reform themselves are afforded that crucial second chance.
Certainly, greater understanding of local communities and the issues impacting on young people, and an element of offering support and guidance, could bring positive results.
It may also bring about greater balance in terms of the number of BAME in custody.