Black groups in cleft stick

Black groups in cleft stick


Written by: Rebecca Wood

The government’s strategy to prevent young Black people’s over-representation in the criminal justice system is deeply contradictory, says a new report.

‘Policy, purpose and pragmatism: dilemmas for voluntary and community organisations working with black young people affected by crime’ written by researcher Helen Mills for the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) and based on anonymised interviews with twenty-six people from sixteen different Black[1] organisations, highlights some crucial contradictions in government strategy.

Compromised, undermined and straitjacketed

The government has increasingly commended the work of third-sector Black groups and presented them as being uniquely placed to reach marginalised Black youngsters caught up in criminal activity.[2] In order to strengthen these groups, the thrust of government policy in recent years has been to improve funding for and the capacity of Black groups so that they can take on more responsibility in the provision of ‘specialist services’. Indeed, as the CCJS report highlights, the third sector ‘is increasingly being called upon to meet government criminal justice policy objectives and deliver services’. The key way in which the statutory sector engages with groups is now through the commissioning of services, undertaken in a competitive process on the basis of best value.

Yet the CCJS research demonstrates how, in reality, those who are reliant on government funds often find themselves compromised, undermined and straitjacketed by the limitations of the funding environment. So, despite apparent support for ‘innovative’ projects, most government funding is actually described to CCJS as conservative, supporting short-term, one-off projects, and often tokenistic in nature. The report also highlights the historic sensitivities around small community groups collaborating with statutory bodies, and how that continues to be a cause of concern.

Similarly, groups were subject to multiple, seemingly contradictory, policy agendas. Those originally set up to respond to a specific set of issues in a specific (ethnic) community are now, under the community cohesion agenda, having to disguise their focus so as to appear to be providing a more generic service to all.

Yet at the same time, the demand from central government appears to be for groups which do have a specific ethnic identity and are apparently able to offer ‘specialist support’ to Black youth.

Reality of working on the ground

What also becomes clear in the report is just how much the current knife and gun crime panic has impacted on the work of these groups. Revealingly, it shows how ‘gun crime’ has become the latest buzzword in funding circles and how some groups, in order to access much-needed funding, will strategically insert the term into applications in order to maximise chances of acquiring funds.

Yet hidden within this report is an interesting observation: that the nature of the work the groups undertake remains, in the end, fairly consistent despite fluctuating policy agendas. Groups help young people into employment and educational opportunities, try to provide some kind of structured intervention into the lives of those most troubled of youngsters, and assist with accessing statutory support.

But some groups voiced real frustration, in the end, with the limitations of their interventions – because they felt that ultimately the structural inequalities which surround many of their young people remained unchanged and unchallenged.

It is here that the report’s findings are of most importance. For the image it reveals is of organisations doing piecemeal work on an individual basis whilst the real issues (of poor housing, struggling schools, under-resourced youth services, and so on) are left unchallenged. In the process, these groups’ fear is that they will become increasingly powerless and isolated, occupying a narrowing space for critical engagement on the issues that matter to the communities they serve. Thus, in the worst case scenario, the government out-sources the most vital jobs (those it appears to have lost interest in tackling) to these groups which are left competing for scarce resources in the form of contracts and commissioning. Dubbed saviours on the one hand, they are, on the other hand, buckling under the pressure to come up with the solution.

Related links

Centre for Crime and Justice Studies

Download a copy of the report

[1] In the context of both the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies report and the Select Committee on Home Affairs, 'Black' is used to describe people of African-Caribbean and African origin only. [2] The research used, as its starting point, the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee's wide-ranging inquiry between 2006 and 2007 into the 'over-representation of young Black people in the criminal justice system', what they labelled as the first inquiry of its kind since Lord Scarman's in 1981. The Committee recommended that a key part of the government's strategy should be adequate and consistent funding for voluntary organisations. The government responded in kind by accepting this recommendation and by putting in place mechanisms to improve funding and capacity-build voluntary-sector groups. Their response should be seen as part of a wider trend which has seen statutory bodies increasingly interested in forming closer partnerships with voluntary-sector groups.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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