Criminal courts, prosecutors, police, and probation services need to radically change the way they deal with people from ethnic minorities to avoid wasting lives and needlessly spending more than £300 million a year, a long-awaited report says.
The wide-ranging report into the way the way the criminal justice system (CJS) treats black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups, written by Tottenham MP David Lammy, highlights the "overt discrimination" felt by many BAME offenders, who are vastly overrepresented in prisons.
BAME men make up 14% of the population but 25% of all prisoners. Lammy argues that if this imbalance were corrected there would be 9,000 fewer people in prison, the equivalent to about 12 jails.
The report – released on Friday and commissioned 18 months ago – makes 30 recommendations, including:
- Better recording of ethnicity in crime statistics and a commitment to either explain racial discrepancies or commit to reforming to prevent them.
- Removing any racial information from police reports given to the Crown Prosecution Service so prosecutors can make "race-blind" decisions.
- Assess the maturity of people aged up to 21 to determine whether they should be tried as adults or through the youth justice system, as is standard practice in Germany.
- Examine how modern slavery legislation could be used to protect the public and prevent exploitation of vulnerable young people.
The report contains alarming statistics about the number of non-white offenders in prison and how they are treated:
- BAME male prisoners are far more likely to be kept in high-security prisons: 417 black offenders and 631 Asian offenders are in high-security for every 100 white offenders.
- Muslims account for 5% of the UK population but around 15% of the prison population. This is not due to terrorism: Very few Muslims have been convicted of terrorism offences, just 175 between 2002 and 2012.
- Gypsies, Roma, and travellers make up 0.1% of the population but account for 5% of all male prisoners.
- A 2016 Home Office report found that the odds of a BAME offender receiving a prison sentence for drug offences was around 240% higher than for white offenders.
Lammy said on Friday: "My review clearly shows BAME individuals still face bias – including overt discrimination – in parts of the justice system.
"It is only through delivering fairness, rebuilding trust, and sharing responsibility that we will build the equal and just society so often spoken about.
"As the prime minister said, if you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. Now is the time to stop talking and take action."
Labour MP Lammy said he was most concerned by the number of BAME children caught up in the legal system, many of whom have undiagnosed mental health needs and may have appeared in court without a parent or a social worker.
Some 3% of the UK population identify as black, but 20% of the children in custody in England and Wales are black.
And Lammy warns that the problem is getting worse: Reoffending among BAME children rose from 11% in 2006 to 19% in 2016.
The report calls for alternatives to the traditional court process, like the "Rangatahi" courts in New Zealand, in which influential people from a young person's life, such as teachers and social workers, hold local services accountable for the child's rehabilitation.
The report also warns that BAME people are far more likely to have undiagnosed mental health problems, a problem seen in schools and mental health services as well.
"Youth justice may be regarded as a success story, but this is no time for self-congratulation," Lammy said.
"Despite fewer young offenders than a decade ago, the proportion of BAME young offenders has risen disturbingly. The system also appears to have given up on parenting – just 189 parenting orders were issued last year, despite 55,000 youth convictions.
"Unless we see fundamental reform, these young people will become the next generation of adult offenders, stuck in a cycle of crime, unemployment and welfare."
Lack of trust
The report demonstrates how distrust in the legal system is causing more BAME offenders to treat it with enmity, often to their own detriment. Black and Asian men are 1.5 times more likely to plead not guilty than white men, the report said, resulting in longer sentences.
Judges are instructed to reduce sentences by up to one third in the event of an early guilty plea – but because of a generalised belief that the system is rigged against them, BAME offenders are more likely to ignore state-funded legal advice. Lammy said he spoke to several BAME offenders who later regretted their plea – and he charges that this is a problem CSJ agencies should have dealt with by now.
"The reason that so many BAME defendants plead not guilty, forgoing the opportunity to reduce sentences by up to a third, is that they see the system in terms of 'them and us'," the report says.
"Many do not trust the promises made to them by their own solicitors, let alone the officers in a police station warning them to admit guilt. What begins as a ‘no comment’ interview can quickly become a crown court trial."
Prisons and probation
The government is spending an extra £234 million a year on housing the overrepresented BAME offenders currently in prison, the report estimates.
BAME prisoners are far more likely to report being victimised and problematic relationships with prison staff, who, the report says, lack diversity overall.
Reoffending rates for BAME offenders are also higher than the national average and particularly so for young black boys. Of those aged 10 to 14, 51% reoffend within a year of being released from a custodial sentence, compared to 40% for white boys.
And the report also strongly criticises the privatised community rehabilitation companies (CRCs), which have been linked to rising homelessness and reoffending among offenders.
CRCs, Lammy wrote, "have not lived up to their billing. Small providers have found themselves squeezed out, while objective judgements from inspectorates, the National Audit Office, and parliamentary select committees all suggest that rehabilitation had not been transformed, at least not for the better."
In closing his report, Lammy urges everyone involved in the CJS, and politicians, to not just heed his warnings but to act upon them:
"This review was sponsored by two prime ministers and has enjoyed cross-party support. My report has necessarily focused principally on the role that public policy can play in improving the treatment and outcomes of BAME individuals.
"However, policy prescriptions alone ‘deliver’ nothing. Each branch of the CJS must decide on its own appetite for change. Reform must be taken on by courageous and determined leaders.
"This applies to politicians in charge of departments, chief executive officers in charge of agencies, as well as all the institutions of the CJS – Youth Offending Teams, Community Rehabilitation Companies and the judiciary.
"I have seen for myself the difference that this can make in the best parts of our CJS. I hope that all those in leadership positions will recognise the scale of the change needed and rise to meet that challenge."
Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions, said in response to the report: "I am pleased that the Lammy Review recognises the work done by the CPS in this vital area. The Review calls on all parts of the criminal justice system to be more open to external scrutiny, have rigorous internal oversight, and to develop a diverse workforce as we have done and will continue to do.
"I am proud to lead an organisation that works to ensure that fairness and justice are at the heart of our decision making regardless of someone’s race or background.
"We will consider the recommendations for the CPS and use them to develop further ways we can improve our work."
Patrick Smith is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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