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The experiences of black and mixed heritage boys in the youth justice system - A thematic inspection by HM Inspectorate of Probation

October 2021

In all services we inspected, staff and managers told us that the large majority of black and mixed heritage boys in the youth justice system had experienced multiple adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and had high levels of need, such as special educational needs (SEN) and mental health difficulties, which had not always been identified or properly addressed until they came into contact with the YOS. This raises questions and concerns about the support they received from mainstream services before their involvement with the youth justice system. Reports of high levels of unmet need for black and mixed heritage boys entering the youth justice system was a consistent theme of this inspection. There was a general consensus among YOSs that, had problems and difficulties been addressed earlier in the children’s lives, there could have been a different outcome for them. In the post-court cases we inspected, 60 per cent of the boys were, or had been, excluded from school, the majority permanently. Almost a third had been victims of child criminal exploitation.

In half of the cases inspected there was evidence (where it had been recorded) that the child had experienced racial discrimination. A third of the boys had been subject to Child in Need or Child Protection plans. The majority were not ‘heavily convicted’ (i.e. they had only one or no previous convictions), and in over a quarter of cases (where information had been recorded) the child had a disability. They were reported to be more likely than other groups of children to have an education, health and care (EHC) plan, and equally as likely again to have special educational needs that had not been identified or addressed. The boys had grown up in the poorest areas of their towns and cities and had often been exposed to the violence and family breakdown associated with poverty.

The experiences of black and mixed heritage boys in the youth justice system⁶

Racial discrimination was also a feature in the lives of the boys. For the most part, they accepted it as being ‘just the way it is’. This acceptance is as significant as the experience itself, when considering their development, their circumstances and their future.

What we learned from the boys

User Voice spoke to 38 boys across the nine inspected areas. The majority talked about the challenges they faced growing up in relation to their environment and peer associations and friendship groups, which for many were determined by living in the same locality and shared experience rather than conscious choice. The boys spoke at length about being subject to police stop and search and racial profiling. This was especially significant for those who lived in London.

When discussing their involvement with their individual YOSs, the boys were not always clear about the role of the YOS or what support it could offer them. For some, their sentence plan or out-of-court intervention was something they just had to get through. They often felt they did not need any support from professionals, or at least they could not articulate what advice and guidance might be helpful. For some there was a sense that interventions worked best when the YOS had limited contact with them, but this also led to them viewing their interventions as having a ‘tick box’ feel. When interventions were more intensive and challenging, this was recognised as having greater benefit and promoted better engagement. Almost all of the boys described positive relationships with their workers, stating that they felt listened to and understood. Only two of the 38 boys said that the ethnicity of their YOS worker was significant to them. This suggests that the skills, understanding, knowledge and integrity of the worker and the relationships they form with black and mixed heritage boys are the most important factors in supporting and promoting meaningful and effective engagement.

Governance and leadership

Addressing disproportionality has been a longstanding priority for most YOSs and an objective in youth justice plans for a number of years. However, until recently there had not been sufficient impetus to improve and deliver high-quality services that achieve better outcomes for black and mixed heritage boys. To reduce the over-representation of black and mixed heritage boys in the criminal justice system, there must be a clear local understanding of what is driving it in the first place, with a detailed, robust working plan in place to address it. We did not find this to have been the case in most areas. A number of services have more recently put action plans in place but progress is yet to be seen in the casework being delivered.

There was a theme of disconnect. In terms of understanding need, the staff working with the boys had a detailed awareness of the challenges they faced and the risks associated with their safety and wellbeing and risk of harm to other people. However, they did not always understand the bigger picture, strategic priorities and statistics. At partnership board level, there was knowledge of national data regarding disproportionality and local data for different ethnic groups, for example re-offending and custody statistics, but not enough granular detail about the local needs of black and mixed heritage boys to enable board members and strategic leaders to tackle what might be driving their over-representation.

Where board members had knowledge of local disproportionality in their own service areas, such as health or education, this tended to relate to black, Asian and minority ethnic children and families as one group. There was not enough understanding of the situation for separate ethnic groups, whose experiences are different and whose specific over-representation is of concern. In addition, board members are not using data from their own service areas, for example data on police stop and search and school exclusions, to understand how policies, procedures and practice in individual services might be impacting on any over-representation in the YOS cohort. Over the past year there has been more strategic focus on meeting the needs of black and mixed heritage boys, but the degree to which this was happening varied considerably across the services we inspected. Our inspection findings show that much more needs to be done to understand and then meet the needs of this group of children.


We found that the majority of staff had manageable caseloads that gave them the opportunity to build positive relationships with the children they worked with, and they did this well. The amount and quality of training that had been delivered varied across services but most staff had received unconscious bias training and race equality training. The majority felt that this had prepared them ‘quite well’ for working with black and mixed heritage boys. However, our findings on the quality of casework indicate that more training, supervision and support are required.

Some staff appeared to lack confidence in discussing culture and/or experiences of discrimination, which meant that specific challenges faced by black and mixed heritage boys were not fully explored, understood or addressed. Most staff reported that their supervision was sufficiently focused on diversity and the needs of black and mixed heritage boys, but we found that discussions did not routinely ask the right questions.

In most services, there was a lack of black and mixed heritage volunteers, and some have struggled to recruit staff and managers that reflect this group of children. In particular, there is a lack of black and mixed heritage male staff, and not enough mentors, particularly given that the absence of a suitable male role model was often cited as a challenge for this group of children.

The majority of staff felt their organisations promoted a safe space to discuss issues of race and racism and they felt confident that, if they raised concerns, they would be responded to appropriately. However, we found that staff did not always raise concerns when they felt that children had been discriminated against, for example in relation to stop and search activity. An example of this was the case of a boy who was being stopped and searched five times per week and, while the case manager thought this was concerning and that the child was being targeted, it was not raised with colleagues or managers. This lack of attention and escalation could suggest that black and mixed heritage boys in the youth justice system experiencing racism may have become normalised, not only to the boys themselves, but also to those working with them. Staff were conscious that most of the boys would have experienced racial discrimination, but they rarely considered the impact of this in assessments or attended to it in the work delivered, unless the child articulated it as an issue themselves.

Just under half of the case managers we spoke to felt that induction processes did not sufficiently cover issues of race and equality.

Partnerships and services

Despite their over-representation, there are few services commissioned specifically for black and mixed heritage boys. Good-quality specialist commissioned services were the exception rather than the rule. Where voluntary and third-sector organisations were available, they were not known to all staff and volunteers, so were not routinely used. Where they were used, they were often an ‘add-on’ to other interventions. Staff did not always maximise the benefit of the services through effective communication and joined-up working to support children to reintegrate into the community. In relation to mainstream services, we found that black and mixed heritage boys were less likely to have been referred to Early Help services when they were younger but were more likely to be involved with statutory children’s social care. Within YOS interventions, work with statutory partners such as education, children’s social care and the police, was not always well coordinated to meet the child’s needs. YOSs reported serious challenges in finding suitable education and training provision for boys who had been excluded from school. Other challenges highlighted included access to accommodation for children who were at risk of remand or leaving custody.

Information and facilities

We found limited evidence that feedback and information from black and mixed heritage boys and their parents or carers were being collated and used in a meaningful way to identify any barriers to access or improve services.

Services were all able to extract data from their recording systems to produce management reports. The quality of these varied, however. Information such as whether children had a disability or had been excluded from school was not always recorded clearly on cases files and the recording of children’s ethnicity was not always accurate. Information received on the ethnicity of children tended to be input on the system based on what had been recorded by the police or at court.

This was not always checked with the child, which meant mistakes were not rectified. The errors and gaps in information recording called into question the reliability of the data reports produced.

Many staff told us that they were not aware of the data and information regarding the over-representation of black and mixed heritage boys in their services. This raised concerns about the connection between strategy and practice and how well staff were being brought along with the services’ stated ambitions to address over-representation and promote equality.

There was very little data and analysis in relation to community resolutions and almost no understanding of community resolutions that had been issued by the police outside of the YOS out-of-court disposal processes. Information relating to ‘street community resolutions’ was not being shared between the police and the YOS so it was not possible to assess which children were receiving them. The lack of access to local data on rates of stop and search for black and mixed heritage boys made it difficult for YOSs and partnerships to assess its impact on over-representation. Equally, because information on education placements was not being reliably recorded on YOS databases, and detailed and consistent information was not being exchanged at operational levels, it was difficult for services to clearly understand any links between over-representation and school exclusion. Overall, information was not being used well enough and this was recognised by a number of services as an area where improvement is required.

Most of the staff we met were taking a flexible approach to their work. In part, this was because of the pandemic, but many had been working this way for some time in order to manage risk, as many children did not feel safe attending the office.

The quality of casework

There were significant deficits in the quality of casework being delivered to black and mixed heritage boys in both statutory and out-of-court disposal work. Overall, we found the quality of assessment and planning to be inadequate in both types of work. The direct work delivered to black and mixed heritage boys requires improvement. Reviewing activity in relation to statutory casework was inadequate for children subject to court orders, as was joint working for out-of-court disposals. In 40 per cent of out-of-court disposal cases and in half of statutory cases, the child had experienced racial discrimination (where information had been recorded) and in the large majority of cases, the impact of this had not been explored or considered. The poor standard of assessment impacted on the quality of planning and the overall delivery of work. More positively, there was evidence that case managers formed meaningful relationships with the children and their parents or carers. However, these were not always used to get ‘under the surface’ and examine the challenges the boys were facing and how these might be linked to their offending. If YOSs are to be truly child first and trauma-informed in their practice, understanding the lived experiences of children and analysing their impact on them is critical. Discussion about these assessed issues should form the basis of any intervention with a child, and with black and mixed heritage boys this includes exploring the impact of any discrimination or marginalisation they have experienced.

Final reflections

HM Inspectorate of Probation will continue to examine issues of ethnicity and equality as part of our local youth inspection programme. We are committed to improving how we do this as we review our standards and methodology in light of our findings in this inspection.

Effective practice

Areas of practice that enhanced the quality of the work delivered to black and mixed heritage boys:


¹ User Voice is a charity created and run by people who have been in prison and on probation.
Youth Justice Board and Ministry of Justice. (2021). Youth Justice Statistics 2019/20: England and Wales.

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