Justice? Care Experienced youth over-criminalised

October 4, 2023

Image by Kindel Media from Pexels

Kerrie Portman reports on the injustice, layered upon injustice, faced by care leavers

In 2019 Neil Harrison, associate professor in Education and Social Justice at the University of Exeter, wrote that the societal assumption that Care Experienced people are more likely to end up in prison or in contact with the criminal justice system than graduate from university was one of the most hurtful assumptions said to or about young people like me.

A recent survey by HM Inspectorate of Prisons reported that over 50% of respondents in child prisons in England and Wales were Care Experienced. Outcomes for these children leaving custody are bleak too, with a 70% re-offending rate.

One reason for this is resettlement, as Care Experienced people are much less likely to have family or close support networks to turn to.

The University of Bedfordshire estimated that Care Experienced people are seven times more likely than our non-Care Experienced peers to be imprisoned.

In a 2013 study by the Ministry of Justice of nearly 4,000 adult prisoners, 25% were found to be Care Experienced. So, why are Care Experienced people over represented in the criminal justice system?

Care Experienced people already face negative stereotypes. The same can be said for the over criminalisation of non-white people and racial profiling.

One reason is the systemic criminalisation of the poor. One sociological explanation of the link between social class and crime offered by Aaron Cicourel, professor of Sociology at the University of California, USA, is Interactionism. Essentially, the image police officers and the criminal justice system holds of a ‘typical delinquent’ fits with working class characteristics, so these people are more likely to be arrested and prosecuted.

Even when a middle class person is arrested, because they do not fit the ‘typical delinquent’ image, they are likely to be viewed more leniently. In the case of children, it’s also viewed that middle class parents will be able to discipline their child.

Care experienced people already face negative stereotypes. The same can be said for the over criminalisation of non-white people and racial profiling. Interactionism and self-fulfilling prophecy also works prior to contact with the law. Even proclaiming the stereotype that Care Experienced people are more likely to end up in prison than university potentially leads professionals to being less likely to invest in us to go down a different path.

Additionally, those in Care are less likely to have a parental figure or advocate to step in to provide guidance or prevent a caution or conviction. Travis Hirschi, professor of Sociology at the University of Arizona, USA developed a Bond of Attachment theory to offer a different explanation. He believed that people develop bonds of attachment, belief, commitment and involvement in their communities, through education, employment, family ties, volunteering or general daily interactions within the community.

If someone is unable to afford food, stealing it or going hungry may be their only two options

These attachments and inclusion mean people are less likely to commit crimes as they have a vested interest in the community. 10.4% of Children in Care were moved two or more times a year, 39% of care leavers aged 19-21 are not in education, employment or training and 74% of Care Leavers report feeling lonely, which could translate to lack of community support networks.

Community support can also reduce crimes such as theft. If someone is unable to afford food, stealing it or going hungry may be their only two options. Those with support networks are more likely to be able to have a friend, neighbour or family member who can give them a meal or lend them money to buy food.

Youth Legal Justice notes that there are often a variety of causes that lead to Care Experienced people coming into contact with the criminal justice system that are beyond the scope of the system. One example is that Care Experienced people are more vulnerable to exploitation, grooming and becoming involved in gangs. Here, criminalising someone will only serve to alienate them, reduce legitimate opportunities for success and further push them into vulnerable and dangerous situations.

A criminal record can negatively affect education, housing, finances, employment, relationships and a person’s physical and mental health

Youth Legal Justice argues that the criminal justice system needs to be more trauma informed, as well as work harder to address the interdisciplinary factors, rather than simply criminalising people.

‘Reducing Criminalisation of Looked After Children and Care Leavers; A Protocol for London’ also notes that Care Experienced people are more likely to be the victims of crime and that there is cross-over, such as victims of sexual abuse or criminal exploitation being involved in criminal behaviour.

The protocol acknowledges that having a criminal record can negatively affect education, housing, finances, employment, relationships and a person’s physical and mental health, which are already issues for Care Experienced people. As the report notes “For someone who is, or has been, in care, a criminal record can compound all the other difficulties they have to overcome.” (Greater London Authority, 2021).

Care Experienced people are already much more likely to have experiences of significant trauma

Rory Morgan, Head of Political Engagement at Drive Forward Foundation which supports care-experienced youth, commented that the punitive approach to criminal justice leads to increasing incidents of unnecessary criminalisation, which disproportionately affects Care Experienced people and other minority groups. He notes that the long-term repercussions on the lives of Care Experienced people are hard to quantify, but that we’re already much more likely to have experiences of significant trauma.

He writes “Our criminal justice system is currently not comprehensively trauma aware, meaning such behaviour is not understood and only increases the risk of accumulating a damaging record. Many of these young people may not even realise they have a record until they fill in a DBS form or attempt to get a travel visa.” (Morgan, 2019).

Whilst the negative effects of the over criminalisation of Care Experienced people is hard to research, there has been some investigation into the mental health of the general population following contact with the criminal justice system.

April D. Fernandes, associate professor with specialism in criminology at North Carolina State University, USA, conducted research focusing on young people aged 18-32 with contact with the criminal justice system, finding that even ‘low level contact’ led to a significant decline in the person’s physical and mental health.

Corporate Parents are failing to protect Care Experienced young people from coming into contact with the criminal justice system and then punishing us for their failings

The Office for National Statistics and Independent Office for Police Contact together published Deaths During or Following Police Contact: Statistics for England and Wales 2019/20, 54 people died by ‘apparent suicide’ two days, or with clear causation to the custody. The report does not count suicide attempts that do not result in death and the numbers relied on the linking of the suicide to custody. These grim life outcomes aren’t exclusively about Care Experienced people, who are already described as the UK’s most vulnerable group.

The state and many of the state actors are the Corporate Parents of Children in Care and Care Leavers. Our Corporate Parents are failing to protect us from coming into contact with the criminal justice system and then punishing us for their failings.

The United Nations Convention of the Rights of The Child includes the prevention of criminalising children and Care Leavers up to the age of 25. Corporate Parenting principles pose the question “would this be good enough for my child?” to every single one of our Corporate Parents, from local councillors, to social services, to the police to all statutory services… if the answer is “yes” then they shouldn’t be a Corporate Parent.

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Kerrie is an autistic care leaver, her love of writing originating from the desire to raise awareness of discriminatory practices in social care. This led to her main writing accomplishments, including two published articles in The Guardian and co-authoring a chapter of the book: ‘COVID-19 and Co-production in Health and Social Care Research, Policy, and Practice, Volume 2: Co-production Methods and Working Together at a Distance’. As Kerrie’s love of writing grew, it expanded to most topics and she has also guest-written articles for Ambitious About Autism, National Student Pride, iReader, Heroica, Wearewriteous and North Hertfordshire Pride.

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