People from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are more likely to be jailed for some crimes than those who are white, according to a government-commissioned report.
While black people are known to be almost four times more likely to be in prison than white people, the study, headed by the Labour MP David Lammy, reveals racial disparities at many stages of arrest, charging, prosecution and imprisonment.
Lammy, the MP for Tottenham in north London, said: “These emerging findings raise difficult questions about whether ethnic minority communities are getting a fair deal in our justice system. We need to fully understand why, for example, ethnic minority defendants are more likely to receive prison sentences than white defendants. These are complex issues, and I will dig deeper in the coming months to establish whether bias is a factor.”
For example, the report found that young black males are 10.5 times more likely than young white males to be arrested for robbery. In general, black men were more than three times more likely to be arrested than white men.
The comparative figures raise concerns about equal treatment by police and the courts as well as challenging whether differential outcomes are due to causes outside the control of the justice system.
The interim report notes that “black individuals account for about 3% of the total population of England and Wales yet make up about 9% of defendants prosecuted for indictable offences” at crown court.
Lammy’s full report, due next year, was commissioned by David Cameron to investigate evidence of possible prejudice against black defendants and other ethnic minorities in a justice system repeatedly lauded by mainstream politicians as one of the most impartial in the world.
The investigation was given a political boost by Theresa May, who pledged to fight injustice and acknowledged, as she entered Downing Street in July: “If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white.”
The inquiry, supported by the justice secretary, Liz Truss, is to be expanded to include a review of ethnic diversity among judges across tribunals, civil and family courts. It has already begun considering judicial ethnic diversity in crown courts.
Disproportional outcomes were particularly noticeable in certain categories of offences. For every 100 white women handed custodial sentences at crown courts for drug offences, the report found, 227 black women were sentenced to custody. For black men, the figure is 141 for every 100 white men.
Among all those found guilty at crown court in 2014, 112 black men were sentenced to custody for every 100 white men. Men from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds were more than 16% more likely than white men to be remanded in custody, the study’s statistical analysis revealed. Of those convicted at magistrates courts for sexual offences, 208 black men and 193 Asian men received prison sentences for every 100 white men.
One of the most frequent explanations for differential outcomes is that distrust of the justice system encourages ethnic minority defendants to opt for jury trial rather than pleading guilty at magistrates court, where they might receive a lower sentence.
The report confirmed that BAME defendants are more likely than their white counterparts to be tried at crown court: for every 100 young white defendants opting to have a jury trial, 156 young black men choose to do the same. The report also found 152 BAME men pleaded not guilty at crown court for every 100 white men.
Another of the inquiry’s panel members is Shaun Bailey, a Conservative London assembly member. Asked whether he thought there is bias in the justice system, he said: “The institutional figures would suggest that … If you had gone to the black community in the past they would have given this feeling. But these reports are backed up by statistics.
“Because they have less trust in the system, black people think they should trust the public [ie the jury]. It shows they still have trust in the British public. [Outcomes in] the rest of the system would suggest there’s bias.” By opting for a jury trial, Bailey said, black people were trying to redress perceived prejudice.
“One of the things [the UK is] known for around the world is the impartiality of our judiciary. But people have correctly said a small part of it is not impartial.” Bailey welcomed the fact that the government was tackling the issue and noted that the justice system had “not shied away” from the inquiry. “People have been entirely happy to help.” Asked for examples of prejudice, Bailey said: “There are things that are right up with there with Stephen Lawrence.” He declined, however, to give details.
David Isaac, the chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, who also sits on the panel, said: “I’m worried. It confirms some of the observations that our own research produced.
“Black people are more likely to be the victims of crime yet are treated more harshly in the criminal justice system. This confirms that trend does not just exist but it is more acute than we realised. I don’t think this is overt racism but it’s hard to break down the individual components that produce these statistics.”
Among the report’s other findings were that BAME males are almost five times more likely to be housed in high-security jails for public order offences than white men. Despite a fall in youth detention, 41% of youth prisoners are from ethnic minority backgrounds, compared with 25% 10 years ago.
About 51% of the UK-born BAME population agree that “the criminal justice system discriminates against particular groups”, compared with 35% of the UK-born white population.
The disparities were not all one way. Young BAME females and adults were less likely to be charged by the Crown Prosecution Service than comparable white groups. BAME men were about 10% less likely to be convicted at crown court than the comparative white group. Asian women were about 20% less likely to be convicted at crown court than white women.
The report, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Disproportionality in the Criminal Justice System in England and Wales, said: “For some offences, such as robbery, arrest rates were significantly higher for certain BAME groups, but analyses of court processes generally did not suggest that disproportionality emerged for these groups” at later stages in the justice system.
It added: “One overarching hypothesis worth investigating may be that established principles of oversight, guidance and collective decision-making reduce the effects of any unconscious racial bias that play out in areas of the system where decision-makers exercise a higher degree of individual discretion.”
Welcoming the interim report, Truss said: “I am grateful to David Lammy for his work in this very important area. I welcome his commitment to studying these emerging findings in greater detail, and look forward to his full recommendations next year.
“Part of building a fair justice system that works for everyone is drawing on the best talents from every background in Britain. That’s why I have announced a range of measures to make it easier for talented people to become senior judges based purely on merit, and why I have asked David to broaden his review to cover judicial ethnic diversity across tribunals, civil and family courts.”