A major new report claims that the UK justice system needs to be reformed if we are to prevent young offenders from ethnic minorities becoming “the next generation” of criminals.
The report, chaired by Labour MP David Lammy, investigates the bias faced by black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people in the criminal justice system in England and Wales.
And the findings suggest discrimination in the UK is proportionally worse than in the US in the case of black offenders.
While black people make up 3% of the general population, they account for 12% of the prison population; black people in the US make up 13% of the population, and 35% of the prison population.
In England and Wales, young black people are nine times more likely to be locked up than their white peers, according to Ministry of Justice analysis, cited in the report.Embed from Getty Images
“These disproportionate numbers represent wasted lives, a source of anger and mistrust, and a significant cost to the taxpayer,” said Lammy, the MP for Tottenham, who estimated the annual cost to the taxpayer to be over £300 million.
“It is only through delivering fairness, rebuilding trust, and sharing responsibility that we will build the equal and just society so often spoken about,” he added.
“As the Prime Minister said, if you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. Now is the time to stop talking and take action.”
Global Citizen campaigns to end the discrimination of minorities around the world. You can take action with us here.
Lammy said his findings suggest that while overt racial prejudice is fading in the UK’s justice system — although it does still exist — covert, unconscious, or implicit bias are becoming more apparent.
The statistics cited in the report are illuminating.
People from BAME backgrounds make up 14% of the general population in England and Wales. But they make up 25% of the prison population.
Even worse, they make up 41% of the youth justice system — which has risen dramatically from 25% just 10 years ago.
Meanwhile, the proportion of first-time offenders coming from BAME backgrounds has risen to 19% — up from 11% in 2006.
Lammy said his report was intended to look at the “treatment and outcomes” of BAME people in the criminal justice system.
He notes that lack of trust is one of the major issues, with people from BAME backgrounds not necessarily listening to advice on pleading guilty from their solicitors or from police officers.
The rate of black defendants pleading not guilty in Crown Courts between 2006 and 2014 was 41% — compared with 31% for white defendants. That leads to longer and more numerous trials for black defendants, and they miss out on shorter, more lenient sentences for pleading guilty, according to the report.
The report also found that, when in prison, many BAME men and women feel actively discriminated against. It “contributes to an atmosphere of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and an urge to rebel, rather than reform,” it reads.
Lammy states in the report that the blame doesn’t lie entirely with the justice system.
“The factors behind BAME over-representation begin long before a guilty plea, court appearance or prison sentence,” he said.
“Communities must take greater responsibility for the care and development of their people — failing to do so only damages society as a whole.”
The report lists 35 recommendations with the aim of creating a criminal justice system that treats everybody fairly and equally, regardless of race.
The government has said it will “look carefully” at the suggestions made in the report, which was commissioned by former Prime Minister David Cameron in 2016.
Justice Secretary David Lidington said the government would commit to publishing public sector race audits next month, to give “the clearest understanding to date of how someone’s ethnicity can impact their day-to-day life.”
The recommendations made in the report include:
— Allowing low-level offenders to “defer” prosecution and opt for a rehabilitation programme before entering a plea. If they complete the programme the charges against them are dropped, and if they don’t they face criminal proceedings. This model is already used in New Zealand, California, and the UK’s West Midlands and “produced impressive results and should be rolled out across the country,” according to Lammy.
— More gathering of data on the ethnicity and religion of offenders
— The introduction of a more representative workforce within the justice system, including judges and prison staff, by 2025. Currently, while 14% of the general population in England and Wales are from BAME backgrounds, the proportion within the police and prison service is 6%. It is 7% in the judiciary, 11% among magistrates, and 19% in the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
— The CPS should consider its approach to gang prosecutions, so as to punish people’s actual actions rather than their associations.
— A review of modern slavery legislation, to see if it can help prevent the exploitation of vulnerable young men and women.
— Reformed offenders should be able to apply to have their criminal records “sealed,” so they need not disclose their offence to an employer. A judge would still have access in case of reoffending. This system is already in place in Massachusetts.
— The UK should adopt Germany’s approach of assessing the maturity of younger offenders. Germany allows for the more lenient juvenile law to be applied to young adults, if the “moral and psychological development” of the defendant suggests they are immature.