Young people in West Sussex are significantly less likely to be cautioned or convicted for a first offence than they were ten years ago.
Changes in police policy and an overall fall in crime has seen a 91% drop in the number of youngsters entering the criminal justice system, according to statistics from the Ministry of Justice.
In the 2006/07 financial year, 1,518 children aged between 10 and 17 were convicted or cautioned by police for the first time, but by 2016/17 there were just 134.
The data is taken from a national police database and records a young person’s first caution or conviction but does not include repeat offenders.
The MoJ also calculates a rate of first time offenders to allow comparison between different police forces and local authorities.
In West Sussex, police cautioned or convicted 182 children for every 100,000 in the area less than the England and Wales average of 312.
According to a 2016 report on first-time entrants by the Ministry of Justice, police forces have shifted their focus away from low-level crimes which are more likely to be committed by children.
“In 2002, a target was introduced to increase the number and reduce the gap between the numbers of crimes recorded by the police and those for which a perpetrator is identified”, the report found.
“There is some evidence that, in order to meet this target, the police focused their attention on young people who had committed non-serious offences, as they can be easier than adults to apprehend.”
In England, the number has fallen from just over 105,000 to around 15,500 over the last ten years - a decrease of 85%.
Some 16% of first time entrants in England and Wales were under 14, according to the latest figures. Of these, 1,049 were 12 years or younger, or 6% of the total figure.
The vast majority of young people convicted or cautioned, or 84% of total entrants, were aged 14 or above.
The data also shows that while the actual number of young people in the criminal justice system is falling, the proportion from an ethnic minority background is increasing. In 2006/07, 12% of first time entrants were non-white, but in the latest figures this had risen to 21%.
The number of black and minority ethnic children held in custody has also been increasing, and non-white youngsters now make up a huge 45% of all those in youth detention facilities.
Commenting on the figures, John Drew, senior associate at the Prison Reform Trust charity, said: “In the early noughties, the government imposed a lot of centrally managed crime targets, which didn’t differentiate between low and high-level offences, so the number of children in the system increased dramatically.”
“Over the last decade, we’ve come to realise that when a child is taken into the criminal justice system, it can have a number of seriously damaging effects. Agencies have got much better at working with children before they offend, or when they’ve committed lower level offences.”
“But the statistics on race are the bad news within a good news story. BME children are over represented at every single stage of the youth justice system, and the problem seems to be getting worse. There’s no single cause, but the correlation between poverty and race, for example, is well documented. There is also evidently unconscious bias and prejudice somewhere in the system, and much more research needs to be done to work out exactly where this is.”
A review of race and the criminal justice by Labour MP David Lammy published last year found that BME young people were more likely to be arrested and sentenced to custody for some crimes than white children.
However, it concluded that further research was needed to explain why BME young people were over-represented in the youth justice system.
Source data: <https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/criminal-justice-system-statistics-quarterly-september-2017>