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8 September 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 5:57pm

David Lammy’s review bursts the myth of a link between race and crime

Except when it comes to your chances of fair treatment in the justice system. 

By Zubaida Haque

David Lammy MP has released his much-awaited government-sponsored review into the treatment of black and ethnic minority (BME) people in the criminal justice system of England and Wales. Significantly this review was commissioned by two Prime Ministers – David Cameron and Theresa May – because both felt they could no longer ignore the “burning injustice” of racial inequality in the criminal justice system.

The update from Lammy’s interim review letter to the PM in November 2016 suggests that the findings will be stark, highlighting unequal, disproportionate and harsher treatment of BME people (including Gypsies Roma and Irish Travellers, and black and Asian Muslims) in comparison to their white peers.

The report itself found “overt discrimination” in the criminal justice system, and that the number of black people in prison was even more disproportionate than in the United States. It also highlighted some of the shocking statistics that Runnymede Trust are already familiar with: black people represent 3 per cent of the population in England and Wales, but represent 12 per cent of the British prison population. (and 20 per cent of the young offender population). Gypsies, Roma and Irish Travellers represent just 0.1 per cent of the population, but account for around 5 per cent of the male prison population. Similarly, Muslims represent 5 per cent of the population in the UK, but reflect almost three times that figure in the prison population. 

There is a prevalent perception that BME people (and black people, in particular) are more likely to be involved in crime, so the racial outcomes in the criminal justice system are merely an outcome of criminal history or current offending patterns. But this is not the case. In their analysis of Ministry of Justice data, Release, a national drugs charity, showed that contrary to media portrayals, black people use illegal drugs less than white people. Despite this pattern, black people were six times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched for drugs, and more likely to be charged, rather than cautioned, for possession of drugs. In fact, some 56 per cent of white people received cautions (rather than charges) for drug offences, compared to only 22 per cent of black people.

The “burning injustices” do not stop there. Lammy’s report looks forensically at the extent of racial discrimination and racial disparity at each stage of the criminal justice system. The report found BME prisoners were less likely to receive support while incarcerated, and BME men were more likely to be allocated to high security prisons – which Lammy has aptly described as a “second sentence”. The odds of receiving a prison sentence was 240 per cent higher for BME offenders than their white counterparts. These figures will be ground breaking not only because of the magnitude of racial disparities between BME and white groups within the criminal justice system, but also because these statistics have not been widely shared with the public. Until now.

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Crime and race (and more recently religion with respect to Asian grooming gangs) are often linked together, as though racial group is the key explanation. This is simplistic, insidious and harmful. High arrest rates amongst black people often (but not always) reflect more discriminatory and racist policing practices. In addition, key predictors of crime are more likely to be poverty and poor neighbourhoods. Studies, including a House of Commons review, have shown that race is not a driver for crime, and reductions in poverty often lead to reductions in crime – in both multi-ethnic and less diverse areas. It’s also important to take account of age profiles when comparing racial groups in crime. Younger people commit more crime and BME groups are younger, on average, compared to the white population. In fact, research has shown that when you take account of deprived circumstances and age, differences between racial groups disappear.

Of course, there will BME people who have committed crimes and broken the law; in these cases, certainty of punishment must also prevail. But for others it will simply be the misfortune of living in over-policed areas, or being “in the wrong place at the wrong time”. What Lammy’s review shows is that not only are BME people unfairly treated by the criminal justice system, but this systemic racism and inequality is compounded at every stage of the criminal justice system. Through conscious, and unconscious racism and discrimination, the entire criminal justice system contributes to criminalising and stigmatising BME people. By the time they exit the supposedly “fair and just” British criminal justice system, they are the least likely to have successful outcomes in any aspects of their lives.

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Addressing the unfair treatment of BME people in the criminal justice system is long overdue, and it must take into account the wider effects of racial inequalities within society, starting from education and ending in the prison system. Baroness McGregor-Smith’s review on employment showed that Britain could not afford to continue to waste ethnic minority talent and close down social mobility opportunities. David Lammy’s review will highlight the “burning injustices” within our criminal justice system, which will not only be about “wasting money”, but also about “wasting lives”.

Dr Zubaida Haque is Research Associate at The Runnymede Trust.