Originally published in The Guardian
Black and minority-ethnic defendants may be given more severe sentences at magistrate and crown courts because they distrust the criminal justice system and are reluctant to plead guilty, according to a legal thinktank.
While judges reduce punishments by up to a third if offenders plead guilty at the earliest opportunity, a report by the Centre for Justice Innovation (CJI) suggests that a belief that courts treat black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people unfairly prevents them from taking advantage of such reductions and reinforces unequal outcomes.
The CJI report, published before a government review of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system by the Labour MP David Lammy, calls for greater efforts to improve trust so this vicious circle can be broken.
Interim findings by the Lammy inquiry last year found that male BAME defendants are 52% more likely to plead not guilty in crown courts than white defendants in similar cases.
About 51% of the UK-born BAME population agreed that “the criminal justice system discriminates against particular groups”, compared with 35% of the UK-born white population.
While black people are almost four times more likely to be in prison than white people, the Lammy investigation revealed racial disparities at the stages of arrest, charging, prosecution and imprisonment.
Lack of trust, the CJI report suggests, may be a significant element for the disparities in sentencing and imprisonment. “It may be leading to BAME defendants receiving more severe sentences by making them less likely to plead guilty,” the report states.
“Male BAME defendants are 52% more likely to plead not guilty in crown courts than similar white defendants. The reason for this is, at least in part, due to a mistrust in the courts and criminal justice system.”
Not only does it affect the initial court case, the CJI study says, but “Perceptions of unfair treatment within the court process and lower levels of trust in the courts are likely to increase the chances that BAME offenders will go on to offend again.”
The trust deficit, the report concludes, is concerning “not only because it seems to lie at the root of their much higher not-guilty plea rates, and all that means about the increased risk of facing a more severe sentence, but also because it is likely to be storing up trouble for the future, by making BAME defendants more likely to reoffend”.
The CJI suggests improvements could be made to increase trust in the courts, including using “jargon-free communication” to help defendants understand better what is going on and “pop-up courts” to root justice in the heart of their communities, possibly using buildings such as libraries.
Improving perceptions of fairness and trust should be at the heart of the Ministry of Justice’s court reforms, it suggests.
Phil Bowen, director of the CJI, said: “We all want our courts to treat people equally, regardless of their background or colour of their skin. A ‘them and us’ perception of our courts has to be addressed, otherwise it spells trouble for the future.
“Building trust in the justice system is everyone’s responsibility … [There is] no silver bullet but these measures go towards addressing a deep-seated issue for the good of the justice system and the good of all of us in society.”
The report records the experience of one offender, identified only as Suleman, who at 18 was sentenced at crown court to two years in prison.
He recalled: “It was me against them. Coming from an Asian Muslim background, I didn’t see anyone with a common background. My distrust started with the police. I didn’t trust anyone. As for judges and magistrates, they were the last people I trusted – elderly, white English people – and that’s not what I see in society outside. They don’t understand what I’ve gone through or my culture. They don’t take into account anything you say, no common ground at all.
“We need more diversity of staff, including judges, and better training for professionals. That could improve the system. The language in courts needs to be made easier as well to make them less confusing. And I feel strongly if people like me, who know first-hand what it’s like, are consulted that could improve the courts and restore trust in them.”