I have seen the devastating impact on civil society when there is a loss of faith in the judicial system

Uncomfortably Familiar: an American perspective on racial disparities in the British justice system

Posted on 15 Aug in

James Bell

In November 2016, Member of Parliament David Lammy sent a letter to the Prime Minister regarding emerging evidence that blacks are treated more harshly in Britain’s criminal justice system than their white counterparts. Mr. Lammy wrote “it is clear to me that this is a widespread concern within Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities.” Mr. Lammy continued with “we must make sure that the system is scrupulously fair and that it does everything it can to help offenders turn their lives around.”

Although the histories and legal contexts are different, there are disturbing similarities between the treatment of people of color in the American justice system and BAME communities in the UK that should not be ignored. It was this growing sentiment that led to a trans-Atlantic dialog between myself as President of the W. Haywood Burns Institute in the United States and the UK’s Centre for Justice Innovation, culminating in a visit to London last month where I met with Mr. Lammy and delivered a seminar on tackling these disparities.

Mr. Lammy, who is now leading a review into these issues, was generous with his time.  He spoke passionately about his initial findings. One point that caught my attention during our discussion involved his sense that there was a significant lack of trust in the administration of justice amongst ethnic minorities, particularly Blacks.

In the letter to the Prime Minister he stressed that, “the justice system must be seen as legitimate”. I was surprised to learn that justice system legitimacy was being called into question in some quarters. Through my experience in advocating for the equitable administration of justice in the United States, I have seen the devastating impact on civil society when there is a loss of faith in the judicial system by any segment of the population. Indeed, a bedrock principle in the administration of justice in any democracy requires a bargain between the governors and the governed founded and maintained by trust.

The governed agree to abide by the rules of civil society with the understanding that the state will provide safety and that justice will be administered fairly. Essentially, members of the BAME communities and others will participate in the administration of justice because it will be justly administered. If trust in basic societal agreements begins to erode, as is suggested by Mr. Lammy’s findings, then a fundamental institution necessary for peace and security is less effective. In the United States, in communities of color living in concentrated and isolated poverty, this distrust has become a problem for the administration of justice in larger society and a significant contributor to our levels of mass incarceration.

The Lammy Review’s focus on collection and analysis of data is to be commended. Too often justice policies and practices are informed by headlines and anecdotes rather than evidence. The statistics cited in his letter reveal there is a disparity in outcomes for the BAME population when compared to similarly situated whites. Other research reports in the United Kingdom are reaching similar conclusions, indicating it would be prudent to explore further possible contributors.

When data emerged in the US showing similar patterns to those reflected in Mr. Lammy’s initial findings, analysts rushed to attribute the disparities to poverty, family dysfunction or poor schooling. Thirty years later, however, the United States is confronting the uncomfortable truth that bias and racial hierarchy are contributors that need to be examined regarding justice administration.

In the United States, the idea that justice practices are race-neutral and colorblind is deeply held. However, although the symbol representing justice is blindfolded, data reveals disturbing race effects. At first, these data were challenged by disputing the numbers and citing causes other than race. In my experience, Mr. Lammy’s letter to the Prime Minister lays out the correct approach, stating that his review “seeks to work with complexity rather than ignore it.”

The more difficult obstacle for the British government will be to engage with the complexities of how racial, cultural and religious minorities might be negatively impacted by current justice practices and administration. In the United States, jurisdictions that were successful in engaging with disparities gained traction when the justice community lowered their fears and examined their conduct by developing a “culture of inquiry”, a culture which inquires about improving safety outcomes with an eye towards equitable treatment of those it serves.

In these times, all developed economies are experiencing human migration and rapidly changing global economic and social forces. Accordingly, it is important to realize that justice sector legitimacy is necessary for the delivery of public safety.  Mr. Lammy’s report is a critical first step in engaging Parliament in an inquiry regarding fairness and equity in the administration of justice.

James Bell is the Founder and President of the W. Heywood Burns Intitute, an American non-profit which works to eliminate racial and ethnic disparity by building a community-centered response to youthful misbehavior that is equitable and restorative.