Earlier this week a number of different papers ran a story connected to the announcement that the proportion of male offenders in young offender institutions had risen sharply to 21% of the total, with the further observation that 42% of the prison body in this category came from what were termed ‘black and minority ethnic communities’. What might these figures suggest, and is there a link between an increased propensity to criminality in England and Wales and the profession of Islam?
What strikes the reader immediately with respect to these figures is the very high proportion of offenders not only self-reporting as Muslim, but those who are non-indigenous. Why should this be? One of the reasons, although the figures from the 2011 census relating to religion and ethnicity have yet to be released, is that the share of such groups in the younger population of England in particular, and Wales to a lesser extent, has skyrocketed in recent years, but this in itself is unlikely to account for these percentages, as such figures, excepting certain urban areas, will not proportionately correspond to the composition of the population as a whole. Clearly, other factors are at play.
In terms of the overall numbers, according to the Daily Mail the offender population aged 15 to 18 numbered 1,543 ‘by the end of 2011/12’, which was down from 1,822 in the preceding year, whereas the Guardian notes that four years ago the total stood at 2,365. The proportion of males identifying themselves as Muslim has increased from 13% in 2009-10 to 16% in 2010-11 to 21% in the recent ‘annual review of children and young people in custody’. Both the Mail and the Guardian observed that a significant proportion – around a third – of the overall offender population in this category had stated that they had been in care for at least part of their childhood.
What neither of these reports provide us with is information pertaining to the types of offences committed by those held in young offender institutions, or an indication as to whether the nature of offences was to a greater or lesser extent associated with religion and ethnicity. Is there something distinct about the type of offences committed by Muslim young offenders when compared to their non-Muslim equivalents? What proportion of the self-reported Muslim offenders were converts? Although it is likely that the percentage of the latter is low given the age group under consideration, it has been observed that in the mainstream prison system an increasing number of prisoners have been converting to Islam because of the contacts, ‘protection’ and perceived ‘privileges’ that belonging to Muslim gangs can afford.
It would be useful also to see which ethnic backgrounds these young Muslim offenders hail from. Are they predominantly from the longer established Pakistani and Bangladeshi populations, or from amongst more recent Muslim arrivals to this country such as Somalis and Afghans? Whatever the case, it would seem that their self-identification as Muslims legitimises in their eyes the perception that their transgression of the law is not such a serious matter, given that our laws are not based upon the Sharia. Although no firm conclusion can be drawn given the incomplete nature of the data at hand, the significant overrepresentation of Muslims amongst this segment of the prison population – as in the prison population more widely, not only in England and Wales, but elsewhere in Europe – is suggestive of a deep-seated lack of respect for, and identification with, the host society and its values.
Aylesbury Young Offender Institution