Alex Mistlin, The Guardian, January 28, 2021
Self-harm and use of restraint are increasingly commonplace in the youth justice system, according to government figures that also show a record-high proportion of children in youth custody are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.
The government’s annual youth justice statistics, published on Thursday, show that more than half of young people in custody are black, Asian or from a minority ethnic background (BAME), a situation that the shadow justice secretary, David Lammy, described as a “national scandal”.
The figures show a significant rise in the overall use of pain-inducing restraint techniques since 2018-19. The number of restrictive physical interventions (RPIs) increased by 19% in the last year, to about 7,500 incidents. The number of self-harm incidents in child prisons increased by 35%, to about 2,500. For both measures, these were the highest number of incidents in the last five years.
The number of severe injuries suffered by children as a consequence of self-harm incidents has also risen: there were 627 injuries requiring medical treatment after self-harm in 2019-20, with 69 of these injuries requiring hospital treatment (up from 39 in 2018-19).
In total there were nearly 7,800 use-of-force incidents across the three secure training centres and five young offender institutions – an average of 82.5 incidents per 100 children and young people a month.
Carolyne Willow, the director of the children’s rights charity Article 39, said the use of techniques that inflict pain on children was “a stain on our system of child protection. If adults deliberately hurting children is wrong in families, schools and children’s homes, then it must be wrong for children in prison too. We cannot have a two-tier system of child protection.”
The number of BAME young people who received a caution or sentence rose. There were 10% more Asian children who received a caution or sentence compared with 2018-19, making Asian the only ethnicity group to record a rise in the latest year.
The proportion of black children cautioned or sentenced has been increasing over the last 10 years and is now double what it was in the year ending March 2010 (12% compared with 6%). In the same period, the average custodial sentence length given to children has increased by more than seven months, from 11.3 to 18.6 months.
“It is a national scandal that more than half of young people locked up are from a black, Asian or ethnic minority background,” said Lammy. “Instead of denying the reality of structural racism, it is time for the government to finally act like black lives matter.”
Last month Liz Truss, the equalities minister, suggested claims of structural racism in the UK were “evidence-free”.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We are working across government to tackle the deep-rooted causes of BAME children’s over-representation in the criminal justice system – including practical work on diversion and better support for frontline justice services.”