food thought sesssion 1

Justice Studio’s Shirley Ahura reflects on our first Food + Thought Studio Session

Last Wednesday Justice Studio held its inaugural Food + Thought Studio Session. In conversation with us on the day were Mark Blake of the Black Training and Enterprise Group (BTEG) and Anton Shelupanov of Justice Studio, broaching the subject of ethnicity and procedural justice in tandem with the disproportionate treatment of young Black and Muslim offenders by the criminal justice system. An excellent and lively discussion ensued following their talks.

Mark Blake began by asking what does the context of post-Brexit Britain and the consequent discourse surrounding national identity mean for our understanding of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) disproportionality?

Is it a matter solely for identity politics? Mark disagrees. He cites the review carried out by Baroness Lola Young of Hornsey on improving the outcomes for young Black and Muslim offenders on which he worked, and another by David Lammy MP on the treatment of these individuals in the criminal justice system (CJS). Both found substantial evidence of the systematic over representation of young BAME men in different parts of the CJS, to which Mark informatively refers throughout the session, further legitimising the need to revisit and revise the discussion.

Mark observed that we are operating within a fundamentally unjust justice system. A major part of this stems from a system that, whether unwittingly or not, continues to practice racialising processes that target, disadvantage and ultimately criminalise, those members of society from African, Caribbean and Asian backgrounds. What is equally significant however, is the culture of policing in the UK, where the belief is that justice should be adversarial. Britain as a nation has an almost overwhelming propensity for, and impulse towards, punishment, enforcement and reprimand. The process of rehabilitating and reintegrating offenders back into society is highly flawed compared to some other European countries and jurisdictions. “A short prison sentence can start to feel like a lifetime sentence once an offender is released into society, especially in respect to things like criminal checks for employment” Mark comments.

Anton Shelupanov responded to Mark within the context of procedural justice, an important concept initially identified by American psychology professor Tom Tyler. Procedural Justice means that people engaging with a system feel they understand what’s going on and feel that they are being treated fairly. In the context of the discussion, given that the conversation was taking place in Tottenham, one example of procedural injustice was as a contributing factor to the 2011 riots in Tottenham which followed the shooting of Mark Duggan. For the communities and families of young people in contact with the criminal justice system, as well as for the young people themselves, assurance of their voice, agency and respect is paramount when interacting with the state. Good practice suggests the system inviting active participation by defendants and victims in its processes, which ultimately lends the system itself legitimacy.

So what are the solutions to BAME over representation in the justice system and procedural injustice? Is the former ‘just a case of a racist justice system’ as one participant put it, or is the issue more nuanced? How can we prevent young people coming into contact with the police from becoming a criminogenic factor in itself?

Mark Blake suggested that zero interaction should be had between the police and young people in schools and that their role may be better performed by social workers and education professionals. This sparked a debate on police and community engagement. “I respectfully disagree” one academic said. “I argue not for less separation, but more interaction. Young people need to be made aware of the protective role of the police force, which itself was originally created as a preventative measure”. From this, it would seem that an increase of locally deployed police in schools would be the answer. The problem with this perspective however, lies in the implicit assumption that inherent racial stereotyping is a mere product of perception. What happens if the young person in question, who experiences generally positive interactions with uniformed officers locally deployed in his/her school, should err outside of these very safe spaces “only to be stopped by the TSG outside? [Metropolitan Police’s Territorial Support Group unit] What then?” Experiencing this form of police engagement is doubly noxious: not only has the young person undergone a negative interaction with police, but they do so after having been lulled into a false sense of security with them. Not to mention the perspective expressed is premised on the idea that racialising processes are a result of a few ‘poorly trained’ individuals.

The most salient forms of discrimination are not necessarily those enacted by individuals, but those that are more systemic. “There are children as young as 10 getting stopped and searched” Mark added. “To me, that’s not right. I was at a focus group with young care leavers, and the vitriol against the police, was just astonishing…with social workers very closely in line after”. What this demonstrates are some very serious underlying problems with the institution that upholds authority, and vice versa. “The whole police force must be redeemed [in their eyes] before any of that can happen. There must be a shift in culture on that side, the side that focuses on changing the nature of the police, before community engagement can even be on the cards” said a Tottenham faith leader.

This rings true on many accounts. As a friend of someone who had his dreams of playing professional football cruelly snatched away from him as the body weight of a police officer bore down on his knee during a particularly heavy handed Stop and Search, it is clear that the current system is not succeeding. Conversation is, however, always the first step. This is why we look forward to more discussions to come at Justice Studio’s next Food + Thought Studio Session, and we hope to see our colleagues and friends there!