Tackling Racial Disparity In Our Prisons Starts With Building Trust

On her first day as Prime Minister, standing on the steps of Downing Street, Theresa May said "If you're black, you are treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you're white. " She is right - as starkly demonstrated in our prisons.

On her first day as Prime Minister, standing on the steps of Downing Street, Theresa May said "If you're black, you are treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you're white. " She is right - as starkly demonstrated in our prisons. Ethnic minorities make up 14% of our general population, yet make up 26% of our prison population. Whilst just 3% of people in Britain identify as Black British, in our prisons the proportion of black inmates is four times higher. Four times higher. A troubling discrepancy which cannot be shied away from.

So in a country that prides itself on being fair, why is there such racial disparity? Our new report, 'Building Trust' argues that, at the root of this overrepresentation of ethnic minorities in our prisons, is a concerning lack of trust in our criminal justice system. Just over half of British-born BAME people believe that the criminal justice system discriminates against particular groups and individuals, compared to a little over one third of the British-born white population. This lack of trust, in turn, drives different decisions of ethnic minority defendants in court. It means, when faced with the choice of having their case heard by magistrates, or choosing a jury trial in the Crown Court, minority ethnic defendants are much more likely to elect Crown Court. This is particularly relevant because if Crown Courts find people guilty they have the power to sentence them to prison for longer. From Crown Court, defendants from an ethnic minority background are much more likely to plead not-guilty

What does this higher rate of not-guilty pleas in Crown Court have to do with prison numbers? If you plead not-guilty, but are then found guilty, you get a harsher sentence, longer in prison. Recent Ministry of Justice research suggests that the racial disparity in our prisons can be explained by the tendency of ethnic minority offenders to plead not guilty. In short, our prisons have a disproportional number of prisoners of colour at least in part because of lack of trust in the system. David Lammy MP, who is currently leading a government review of race and the criminal justice system, has described this as the 'trust deficit'. One man from an Asian Muslim background, Suleman, summed up his experience at Crown Court - and indeed the whole criminal justice system - 'It was me against them. I didn't trust anyone.'

Understanding the roots of this trust deficit is at the heart of tackling the problem. Compared to white individuals, minority ethnic individuals are twice as likely to be stopped and searched, are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be convicted in magistrates' courts, and more likely to be remanded in custody. Minority ethnic defendants are also more likely than white defendants to have to endure a lengthy Crown Court trial only to be acquitted - a trend that mirrors a similar pattern in the USA, where cases with weak evidence to support prosecution are more likely to be taken forward when they involve minority ethnic defendants than when they involve white defendants. The overall picture hardly inspires confidence. More stop and searches; more arrests, many of which result in no further action; more severe outcomes at court; frequent lengthy trials only to be found innocent after all. Little wonder a British-born BAME defendant's trust in the justice system is comparatively low.

There is hope though. Our report provides evidence that that courts can and should do something about it. First, our courts can be made to feel fairer if the court process is made clearer and more understandable for all. Our research suggests that making the court process feel fairer is effective for everyone, including those defendants who come into court with lower-than-average expectations of fair treatment. It is essential that our courts go the extra mile to make every aspect of the court process understandable and the current government programme of modernisation - online and virtual courts - must prize perceptions of fairness as a measure of its success.

Second, our courts must be properly rooted in their communities, for instance through the adoption of pop-up courts in public buildings such as libraries. We must reconnect our communities to the justice system, learning from the USA and Australia and their community courts. These kind of practical steps are no silver bullet. But they go some way towards casting off the 'them and us' image many defendants, especially those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, feel.

We all want our courts to treat people equally, regardless of their background or the colour of their skin. When courts make decisions between freedom and prison, perceptions really matter. And we know from our research that confidence in the courts' decisions translates into respect for the law and reduced reoffending. Building trust in the justice system is everyone's responsibility, and we believe the strategies in our report can, if implemented by our courts, make a positive contribution to achieving that shared goal.


What's Hot