Black and female young offenders are being denied access to justice because legal advice in young offenders' institutions is sometimes unavailable, a report shows.
A study of 25 young offenders' institutions and almost 300 requests for legal help from young people found that 80% of those struggling to access legal advice are from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, and 9% are female – almost double the number in the overall prison population.
The report, published tomorrow by a group of organisations that work with young offenders, also found that one third of young offenders seeking legal advice had been unable to arrange accommodation, prolonging their period in detention.
"There is a systematic failure by local authorities to meet the welfare needs of young people leaving custody, increasing the already high chance of reoffending," said Chris Callender, assistant director at the Howard League which produced the report. "The public is being put at risk by the prison service ignoring the needs of this abandoned generation," he added.
Young adults are over-represented in the prison population, making up one third of all those sentenced to prison each year despite only making 10% of the population.
Tomorrow's report is the first to gather evidence from young offenders about their experience trying to access lawyers and issues affecting them. It also claims that up to half of young offenders' institutions are failing to meet their legal obligation to provide a "legal service officer", able to provide young offenders with information and help accessing legal advice.
"The discovery that half of YOIs are breaking their legal obligations to provide proper legal support for young adults in prison is the latest proof that this age group is being ignored across the criminal justice system," said Debbie Pippard, head of programmes at the Barrow Cadbury Trust, which also contributed to the report.
The Ministry of Justice said it tried to provide legal advice within young offenders institutions, although it did not deny the finding that as many as half do not provide legal services officers.
"Every prison in England and Wales is required to appoint a legal services officer in accordance with prison Sservice guidelines," a prison service spokesperson said.
"The services of a legal service officer are proactively offered to all new prisoners and we try to ensure those who want it are seen within 24 hours of their arrival to determine whether they need a solicitor or any other advice."
But the report comes as legal aid is facing drastic cuts and campaigners say that accessible legal advice will be particularly crucial to protect vulnerable individuals from the unintended effects of cuts elsewhere in public spending.
"Access to justice must be promoted at a time when all areas of public services face savage cuts; good quality legal services save costs and protect against the risk of injustice," the report says.