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Why it's important to hear from offenders, whatever their background

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Raphael Rowe | 17:06 UK time, Thursday, 15 January 2009

I find it interesting that when a programme features predominantly black boys people automatically assume it's intrinsically linked to the black community.

It doesn't matter if that person they perceive to be black is in fact mixed race such as myself, of black Caribbean and white English origin. Most including the black community see me as black when in fact I consider that an insult to my mother who is not and played an important role in my life. But I gave up correcting them many years ago.

I wonder if the new president of America, Barack Obama, who too is mixed race, feels the same?

In my last programme Jailed for a Knife, four of the perpetrators I interviewed were black and one was white but that doesn't automatically make it a black issue. The issue was teenagers and knives. Is it fair to say that most knife crimes are committed by young black boys? Or that most of the teenagers that have died have been black? Those statistics are not readily available, but do we need them? You only have to look at the snapshots of the young men's faces printed in papers to see there's some truth in the argument.

What I wonder is, if the programme had featured four white teenagers and one black teenager would there be the reverse reaction?

Regarding the racial representation in the programme, as I indicated in the programme, I didn't speak to these young offenders on the basis of their race or where they came from. I spoke to them for their insight on why teenage boys and at times girls, are carrying knives. I wanted to meet young people at the heart of this debate - to challenge them about their behaviour, to throw light onto what had led to their crimes and to show other youngsters, who might be tempted to carry a knife, the consequences of doing so.

It was also important that I spoke to young offenders who are current prisoners, not former offenders who committed their crimes years ago. Peer pressure and recognition is a key aspect of the knife environment - the young men had to have an authenticity, if other young people are to take notice and listen to their testimony.

All of these young men put themselves forward as being willing to take part in a programme. In terms of the offenders included in the final programme they were there on the basis of their crime and sentence. It was important we got a range of offences and experiences to show how knife crime is varied in its nature. In no way were the offenders chosen on the basis of their race or ethnicity.

I was struck by the power of the young men's testimonies and how they came across as thoughtful articulate young men - quite the opposite of the stereotypical hoodie / thug which is often portrayed. We felt it was important that these voices - irrespective of race - should be heard and that their articulate interviews shouldn't be discounted either on the basis of race.

My aim for the programme was for other young people to hear the real voices and experiences of people like them, young men who lived in the 'real world' who could speak directly to them. This seems to have struck a chord with the audience as, at this point, more than 2300 requests have been made by schools, youth groups, police officers and prisons for a copy of the programme to be used in their discussions with other young people. So it looks as if the testimonies of the five young offenders have a real chance of making a lasting difference.



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