by LAUREN CODLING
THE UK’s criminal justice system is “biased” against ethnic minorities, leading experts have claimed, as research showed that BAME offenders are “far more likely than others” to be jailed for drug offences.
New analysis, commissioned by the Sentencing Council, revealed that people from Asian and other minority ethnic groups are 1.5 times more likely to go to jail for drug offences than white people.
Additional figures published last week found Asian offenders received custodial sentences on average four per cent longer than those enforced on white offenders. The odds of a black offender receiving an immediate custodial sentence were found to be 1.4 times the odds for a white offender, the research showed.
Labour MP David Lammy, who published a report in 2017 calling for a “radical overhaul” of the criminal justice system to stop the disproportionate numbers of BAME offenders in the system, noted the new evidence built on his original findings. “There is an urgent need for sustained training in the judiciary on both conscious and unconscious bias, and the government should revisit the need for a target to improve diversity on the bench,” Lammy, who represents Tottenham, said.
Nazir Afzal, a former chief prosecutor, said the findings showed that those who argued the criminal justice system was biased against people from ethnic minorities were correct. He told Eastern Eye on Monday (20): “There is no rational explanation for this other than prejudice,” adding the need for training and continued vigilance is “stark.”
Sailesh Mehta, a barrister at Red Lion Chambers, said the Sentencing Council’s research should be of no surprise to anyone in the criminal justice system. “This problem has persisted for decades, and every piece of research has confirmed what commentators have repeatedly articulated: that there is a significantly disproportionate bias against BAME defendants,” Mehta told Eastern Eye. “They are treated less favourably at every stage. The problems are wide-ranging, from their treatment at school, the treatment of their families in the job and housing markets, treatment by the police, sentencing in the criminal courts and the way BAME defendants are treated in prisons.”
Mehta highlighted the lack of action by government in tackling the unfairness. He said if the problem was reversed (white defendants being treated unfavourably compared to BAME defendants), then urgent moves would be made to address it.
“The hand-wringing response of the Judiciary – that they are not aware of any conscious or unconscious bias – rings hollow, given that they have known of the disparity for decades, but have done little to ensure it is tackled properly,” he said. Mehta noted a starting point would be to ensure that every sentencing guideline (which helps judges and magistrates decide the appropriate sentence for a criminal offence) reminds the individual sentencing of the unfairness in treatment and that they have the ability to “correct this long-standing injustice”.
In response to Eastern Eye, a Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said they were working across government and with partners to tackle the over-representation of black and Asian people and those from other ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system, “which we know has deep rooted causes”.
“That work includes taking forward the recommendations in David Lammy MP’s extensive independent review and developing a number of interventions aimed at reducing disproportionality,” she said.
Additional findings showed the odds of a male offender receiving an immediate custodial sentence were found to be 2.4 times greater than for a female offender. Male defendants received sentences on average 14 per cent longer than for women, the analysis said.