Race bias in criminal justice obscured by old data

Monidipa Fouzder

 

Originally published in The Law Society Gazette

 

A dearth of data makes it difficult to understand the causes of racial disparity in the criminal justice system – a disparity that has created a ‘trust deficit’ for black and minority ethnic defendants.

 

So concludes a report by independent thinktank The Centre for Justice Innovation, published today. This points out that the lack of trust may lead to BAME defendants receiving more severe sentences because they are less likely to plead guilty.

 

The thinktank, which has long championed the need for procedural fairness, says perceptions of unfair treatment in the court process and lower levels of trust are also likely to increase the likelihood that BAME offenders will reoffend.

 

Adult BAME defendants are more likely to have their cases heard in a Crown court and are more likely to go to custody.

 

Certain offence categories show acute disparities. For drugs offences, there are 141 black men in prison for every 100 white men, and 227 black women for every 100 white women.

 

However, the centre says available evidence on racial disparity highlights significant gaps in public data.

 

The report states: ’There is no publicly available data on magistrates’ court decisions around remand or plea rates that takes account of ethnicity and no publicly available data on legal representation and ethnicity at all.

 

’The work conducted on perceptions of fairness, though seminal in its day, is now relatively dated. It is not possible to know whether perceptions of BAME defendants have changed measurably in the intervening decade, as there has been no recent attempt to update it.’

 

Ismet Rawat, president of the Association of Muslim Lawyers, told the Gazette that the absence of data is ‘not an acceptable state of affairs’.

 

Rawat said BAME defendants’ perceptions have worsened significantly. She added: ’BAME defendants today are more aware of and more sensitised to discrimination. They are aware that they are far more likely to be stopped and searched, that they are far more likely to be charged, and that they are far more likely to be sent to prison than their white counterparts, and once there, far more likely to be discriminated against.’

 

Labour MP David Lammy is expected to publish the findings of his government-sponsored review of possible bias in the criminal justice system this summer.

 

He told the Gazette: ’My review has taken me up and down the country, but repeated patterns are emerging. I heard more reports of disproportionate sentencing for minority ethnic groups, who described receiving longer prison terms than white offenders.

 

‘These are worrying trends that I will explore further, before reporting to the prime minister.’

 

Rawat said today’s report and Lammy’s review should provide a springboard for a ‘meaningful and properly resourced’ action plan.

 

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