Race inequality in the criminal justice system demands a comprehensive strategy

by David Isaac

Published: 08 Sep 2017

Last November, the Lammy Review released its preliminary findings into the treatment and representation of ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system in England and Wales. These exposed a bleak truth: Black people and ethnic minorities are more likely to be arrested, sentenced and detained in high security prisons than White people. This week, it also came to light that a report by Dame Elish Angiolini into deaths in police custody – due to be published a year ago – shows that a disproportionate number of Black and ethnic minority people die while being restrained by police.        

Commenting on the findings of the Lammy Review, I spoke about an urgent need for the UK Government to develop a comprehensive and sustainable strategy that not only seeks to rectify race inequality in court, prison, secure youth institution or rehabilitation, but to address the broader, systemic issues that perpetually see ethnic minorities being held back in all areas of life.         

Today, the Lammy Review published its final report, building on its initial findings and presenting a series of recommendations to tackle the disparities that ethnic minorities face across various areas of the justice system. I have been grateful for the opportunity to sit on the advisory board of the review, and welcome the spotlight it continues to shine on deep-rooted problems within a system that should be designed on principles of ‘fairness, trust, and shared responsibility’.   

It is encouraging to see that a number of recommendations made in the Lammy Review reflect the Commission’s own work and stance towards issues which challenge progress towards race equality. Across three of our reports – Healing a divided Britain, Is Britain Fairer? and our August 2017 submission to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination – we have:  

  • called for greater consistency in data collection to ensure that any policy decisions honestly reflect the situation of ethnic minorities and are effective – this was soon followed by a government announcement of a Race Disparity Audit to explore how ethnicity affects the way people are treated by public services. In our submission to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination we have also called for improved data on victims of racially-motivated hate crime and on mental health of ethnic minorities
  • found that ethnic minorities in police custody were significantly more likely to be physically restrained than White people – this is informing the development of a human rights framework that we will share with regulators and inspectors to ensure that restraints are used proportionately
  • highlighted the lack of ethnic diversity within the judiciary and police forces in England and Wales, recommending transparent and evidence-based recruitment practices that build a pipeline of underrepresented groups. In calling for systematic change in race inequality, we know that leadership and positive role models are essential to inspiring the next generation.

The review also recommends innovative interventions such as ‘deferred’ prosecutions that would give defendants an opportunity for targeted rehabilitation instead of immediately entering a plea, as well as giving local communities and families a role in the administration of youth justice. Similar models seem to be working in other parts of the world and deserve to be considered in this country.  

As the findings from our biggest review into race inequality, Healing a divided Britain, show, Black people and other ethnic minorities are not only subject to disadvantage in the criminal justice system, but also in education, employment, income, living standards and healthcare – areas which fundamentally determine people’s life chances. They also experience much more hate crime. Higher rates of exclusions from school, increased likelihoods of being stopped and searched by UK police, and entrenched social prejudice all point to a far greater problem that does not simply begin at the point of custody.

The quest for racial equality, therefore, begins at a grassroots level – recognising the interrelationship between different elements of people’s lives means that we will be better placed to address the drivers that lead to the current ‘them and us’ culture in the criminal justice system.

Striving for racial equality is not just an issue for those who are directly affected by it; divisions can only be healed when ‘we’, as a community, identify the problems and work together on solutions. The Lammy Review, although offering a bleak picture of our criminal justice system, has provided deep and valuable insight into one area of life experienced by Black people and ethnic minorities. We hope, however, that it will feed into a much more comprehensive race strategy that also takes into account other areas in which ethnic minorities experience setback – only then will we see change that is monumental, sustainable and highly effective.