JusticeJustice report

Catholic youths more likely to be in PSNI custody

A joint study by Queen’s University Belfast and the Department of Justice has found that almost two-thirds of youths held in custody in 2018/19 were from a Catholic background.

The report, entitled Over-representation in the Youth Justice System in Northern Ireland, cites statistics from the Youth Justice Agency (YJA) which reports that 62.9 per cent of young people who were in PSNI custody in 2018/19 were Catholics, despite only accounting for roughly 45 per cent of the population in the 15-19 age group.

It further finds that a higher proportion of those living in predominantly Catholic areas were referred to the YJA in 2018/2019, when compared with those living in predominantly Protestant areas. “Structural inequalities and their associated risks might help explain this as the data revealed that those living in highly concentrated Catholic areas were assessed by YJA workers as having more additional needs that contributed to their offending behaviour than those that lived in highly concentrated Protestant areas,” the report states.

The report has additionally raised concerns that children who come through the social care system in Northern Ireland are not being given the necessary support to avoid arrest or other interactions with the police at youth level.

Socioeconomic factors

The study emphasises the importance of socioeconomic reasons as a rationale for the higher prevalence of Catholic youths being placed in custody by the PSNI, such as structural and historical factors such as intergenerational trauma, operational factors, attitudinal factors, and interactional factors.

The study further finds that “regression analysis revealed that when examining the factors influencing subsequent contact with the YJA religion was not found to be statistically significant in influencing the number of community referrals children received to the YJA during the follow-up period”.

It continues: “While religion initially appeared to be significant in influencing admission into custody during the follow-up period, it no longer reached statistical significance when the YJA workers’ risk assessment of the children’s needs were considered.”

The study concludes its section on youth custody numbers by stating that these “could suggest the higher likelihood of being admitted into custody experienced by Catholics in the follow-up period may be explained by their greater additional needs”.

Youth-police interactions

“Those living in highly concentrated Catholic areas were assessed by YJA workers as having more additional needs that contributed to their offending behaviour than those that lived in highly concentrated Protestant areas.”

The study also considers specific experiences such as stop and search, although these figures are hard to break down by religious/political background, as nationality is recorded by assuming that anyone born in Northern Ireland is Northern Irish, rather than British or Irish, whilst religious background was not recorded for in-depth analysis.

In the year included the study, 2018/19, 3,629 children were stopped and searched by police in Northern Ireland. The most notable discrepancy was that of gender, with almost 87 per cent of youths who were stopped and search being males.

Given that 33 in every 1,000 male youth were stopped and searched in this time, compared with five out of every 1,000 female youths, male youths are six times more likely to be stopped and searched than female youths. It should be noted that the study does not explicitly state whether these figures account for repeat offenders or whether the figures record the individuals in question, regardless of the quantity or their interactions.

The study further records that over 95 per cent of those who were stopped and searched were of a white ethnic background, although it notes that this figure likely underestimates the number of youths from an Irish Traveller background.

Figures were released on the amount of arrests by age, gender, ethnicity, and nationality. The report shows that male youths are five times more likely to be arrested than female youths, with children aged 17 and above accounting for the largest proportion of children arrested.

By ethnicity, 91.1 per cent of youths arrested in 2018/19 were white, a figure which is largely consistent with the number of white children in Northern Ireland. The standout figure, however, was that children of an Irish Traveller background accounted for 4.6 per cent of children arrested, despite only accounting for 0.1 per cent of the youth population, according to the last time this figure was recorded, in 2011.

Care status

There was a strong correlation between children in care in Northern Ireland and likelihood to be arrested or to have interacted with the police.

Over one-third (37.1 per cent) of children arrested in Northern Ireland in 2018/19 were ‘looked after’, in other words, reside within the care system. This is despite children in care accounting for less than 1 per cent of the youth population in Northern Ireland.

The report states: “Living arrangements was significant in influencing both admission into custody and the total number of subsequent referrals that children received to the YJA during the one-year period, demonstrating the important role that living arrangements can play in influencing subsequent contact with the YJA.”

It further promotes a number of prospective reforms which have the potential to start reversing the trend of children in care falling into crime, with potential reforms such as policing of behaviours which would otherwise escape response outside of residential care settings and the absence of support which impacts on key decision-making points throughout the youth justice system.

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