Justice matters for young black men

Will McMahon, the Centre's Deputy Director, explains the thinking behind our new Justice Matters project: Tackling the ethnic penalty.

By: 
Will McMahon
Date: 
Monday, 15 September, 2014

At the Centre we first explored the ‘ethnic penalty’ in the discussion paper Ethnicity, harm and crime published in 2007.  In brief, ‘ethnic penalty’ refers to the disadvantages which lead to an ethnic group faring less well than similarly placed ‘majority’ White people across areas such as as employment, health, education and punishment.

Seven years later, living in the shadow of the 2011 summer riots and the resulting inquest into the killing of Mark Duggan, we felt it was important as part of our Justice Matters initiative to revisit the paper and to begin a process of discussion with others about how to understand and tackle the ethnic penalty.

As in 2007 our first focus will be on the disproportionate number of black men, mostly young, in the penal system. There are more than 10,000 black men in prison (pdf), around 13 per cent of the imprisoned male population, a higher proportion than any other minority ethnic group and four times their presence in the adult population in general.

As we argued in ‘Ethnicity harm and crime’, this over-representation has nothing to do with imputed ‘cultures’ or ‘communities’. Instead, it results from income inequality combined with structural racism and day-to-day discrimination where young black men are identified as different and experience greater obstructions and barriers than the equivalent ‘majority’ White population. As a result, the ethnic penalty experienced is likely to be cumulative, occurring throughout the life-course, widely manifested, and compounded by socio-economic deprivation and hardship.

Rather than a narrow spotlight on ‘pathway’ or ‘presence’ in penal systems and the work of the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice and evolved justice ministries, a focus is needed on the social landscape that creates the context for such disproportionate and harmful punishment. The challenge is to transform policy and practice in response to this context.

Our first step has been to review and update the evidence we brought together in 2007 to see if much has changed.  In September 2014 we will be publishing a series of blogs that describe the ‘ethnic penalty’ in terms of poverty, primary and secondary education and employment and will move on to other areas covered in the 2007 paper over the months ahead.

At the same time the Justice Matters team hope to engage in a discussion with individuals and groups from black communities and with practitioners and policy makers across the field of social policy about the issues we raise.  We know there is a wide range of expertise to engage with and a lot to learn from others so want to establish a collaboration that aims to re-orientate policy towards building new practice and away from the criminalisation reflex.

If you are interested in getting involved in ‘Justice Matters – the ethnic penalty’ then please contact Will McMahon


To read more about the ethnic penalty click here. If you would like to discuss the reasons behind the criminalisation of young black men please come to our event on Wednesday 28 January.