Justice Matters for young black men: tackling the ethnic penalty

Will McMahon
Tuesday, 3 February 2015

During January we held a really interesting and challenging Justice Matters event: Tackling the ethnic penalty. About 40 people discussed and debated what might be the broad social factors that create such a disproportionate level of imprisonment for young black men.  Below is a summary of the introduction that I made to the event. In February the Centre will be publishing a précis of the main themes to come out of the discussion.

The penal system has doubled in size in a generation – we now have more than 85,000 people incarcerated, and if immigration detention is included, well over 90,000. The Centre for Crime and Justice Studies starts from the position that something has gone badly wrong in a society that has become more and more reliant on criminalisation and that something needs to be done about it that goes beyond reforming criminal justice as it stands. 

The central idea of the Justice Matters initiative is that we want to build a coalition to fundamentally downsize the penal system. It is simply the wrong approach for dealing with the social problems society faces, so it should not surprise us that the penal system meets with little success.

There is a focus on punishment in our society and we don’t look hard enough at what the source of the social harms are. This focus on punishment over the last generation means we have not left enough space to think about alternative solutions. Those who end up in the penal system are further damaged by it.  It is fairly self-evident that prisons are human warehouses - places of complete misery. For the most part very few people experience what many like to think of as ‘rehabilitation’.

The penal system is very unequal in its impact.  We know that prisons are full of people who are on low incomes, people with learning difficulties, people who have experienced traumatic loss in their lives, people with a wide range of disabilities, and also black young people, who are over-represented in prisons; prisons are sites of concentrated poverty and inequality.   

In my view, this is not because these groups of people are much more likely to break the law or do more harmful things: there are other factors and processes in play that explain the disproportionate representation of these groups in a penal system that is far too big.

To be clear, Justice Matters is not about trying to reform the penal system itself. There are lots of good projects doing that (I don’t want to mention any reform organisation in particular) and if you have had a look at the Centre’s website we do some of that kind of work as well. For example, I held workshops at HMP Grendon and HMP Barlinnie prisons recently because the Centre is involved in a project with eight other European partners called the ‘European Prison Observatory’, its main focus is the improvement of prison standards across Europe and the drawing up of common standards of treatment. 

For the Centre Justice Matters is different to this kind of work. It is about asking how we move some of our work beyond a criticism and reform of criminal justice, so that we can think practically about how we build policy and practice alternatives. We want to transform what society does so that we don’t have the criminal justice reflex as a policy response and so that criminal justice plays a radically reduced role in resolving harms. So Justice Matters hopes to be a different way of proceeding that stands next to current reform sector strategies, not in competition with them, but does differs from them. The Justice Matters leaflet sums this up in the very last sentence of the first page where it says Justice Matters is about 'rethinking the entire configuration of policy and practice so that many current criminal justice responses are not required at all'.

So how does this ethnic penalty event fit into this?

At the Centre we first explored the ‘ethnic penalty’ in the discussion paper Ethnicity, harm and crime published in 2008.  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 employment, health, education and punishment.  My colleague Matt Ford details some of the latest data on some of these issues in his presentation.

Inequalities were also found in the penal system. Today there are more than 10,000 black men in prison, around 13 per cent of the imprisoned male population, a higher proportion than any other minority ethnic group and four times more than their presence in the adult population in general. 

When you look at the numbers of young black men in the penal system alongside all the other data with regard to, for example, income, education and employment, it seems that we should not be speaking about a ‘problem population’ but a population with significant problems arising out of the society in which they live. We concluded in Ethnicity, harm and crime that young black men are much more harmed by our society than are harmful to it.

There are already good initiatives that concentrate on the ‘gateways’, ‘pathways’ or ‘presence’ of young black men within penal systems, from stop and search to numbers in prison.  For example there is the work of Stopwatch on stop and search and also the recent Young Report. Our intention is not to cover that ground. Instead we want to focus on the social context that forms the backdrop to the disproportionate involvement of young black men in the penal system. By tackling the question of what is going on in wider society, you can begin to understand why the penal system has grown so rapidly, and why there are so many young black men in it. By doing this we can challenge the size of the penal system overall.

We know that there is a great deal of expertise to draw on across a range of social policy areas beyond criminology, and also from advocacy groups who have worked on this theme for decades; we want to learn from and collaborate with all those who share our concern.  We are certain that we will need to work with others outside of the Centre to make progress.

That sense of working things out goes for the initiative as a whole; if there is one thing I would want you to take away from this event, it is that the Centre wants the Justice Matters initiative to be a collaboration of many organisations and individuals, based on a broad common understanding of the problem and a common search for alternative ways of doing things. So there will be lots of ways of developing partnerships and working together, most of which we have yet to think of, and you may well have better ideas about these than we have. We are hoping that lots of people will be coming to us and saying ‘have you thought about X or Y or Z?’. We want to build a partnership with you.

So I am going to take for granted today that we can all agree on the idea that we need to radically downsize the penal system. I am also going to take for granted that, from stop and search and community sentences, to court and prison, there are problems that have to be dealt with in terms of ethnicity – the Young Report covers a lot of these – but that is not what we are going to focus on today.

Instead what we would like to get your ideas and experience on, and to discuss, is:

  • what is happening in society that is creating the context for the disproportionate punishment of young black men?
  • what processes are in play that seem to be funnelling some young black men towards prison even before contact with the police?
  • most importantly, what different policies and practices can we build to prevent this outcome?  What alternatives might we think of building?  We need to imagine we are in government...what would we do differently and how would we do it? How can we rethink the configuration of policy and practice – for instance in housing, education, health, social security and employment – so that many current criminal justice responses are not required at all?

For today I want to use a public health analogy.  The public health agenda is not centrally about GPs, Ambulances, A&E and hospitals. It is about what is going on in wider society that brings people to the attention of GPs, the ambulance service, A&E’s and hospitals.  So for us today is not about courts, prisons, probation, community sentences or stop and search. It is about considering what is happening in wider society that creates the ethnic penalty that feeds into these systems, and asking: what can be done about it?

Obviously we are only going to be able to start a discussion today ...  the one outcome we are after is to have that discussion and to  encourage as many of you as possible to work in a coalition with us and help us think through how we can take this forward.

You can read Matt Ford's presentation about data on the ethnic penalty, as well as Anthony Gunther's slides on young black men and fragmented communities.