Ayse Naz Karakurt and Tasmyn Ong: Biases Towards BME Groups in the Criminal Justice System

One of the main aims of our department is to explore the treatment of different communities in our society and to raise awareness about inequalities that some of these groups may come across in their daily lives, such as in the workplace, or in schools. Our aims are reflected in some of the events we held throughout the year, such as the Anti-Racism and Decolonisation panel.

For our blog project, we decided to focus on the biases towards BME (Black and Minority Ethnicity) groups in the criminal justice system, which has been a prevalent issue in recent years.

 What does BME stand for? 

BME stands for Black and Minority Ethnicity, this is the terminology normally used in the UK to describe people of non-white descent, it includes members of the following British and international ethnicities: 

Ø  Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Indian, Indian other

Ø  Chinese, Asian other

Ø  Black African, Black Caribbean, other Black background 

Ø  White and Asian mixed, White and African Caribbean mixed, other mixed background and other ethnic background.

What are the statistics? 

51% of boys in young offender institutions (YOIs) – prisons for boys aged 15 to 17 and young adult men aged 18 to 21 – identified as being from a BME background, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) found.

Furthermore, the same Inspectorate found 42% of children in secure training centres (STCs) – prisons for children up to the age of 17 – were also from a BME background.

Since David Lammy’s review (detailed in the next paragraph) was published, the BME proportion in YOIs was just over 40% – meaning that in just 2 years, the percentage of BME individuals in YOIs increased by a staggering 11%.

What is being said about this?

When Theresa May became Prime Minister in July 2016, she promised to fight “burning injustice” in British society and create a union “between all of our citizens”. In her speech, she said: “If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white.”

Although May promised to address the injustice of black individuals being treated more harshly by the justice system – the problem has indeed worsened over the last 3 years. 

Meanwhile, the Labour MP David Lammy was conducting a landmark review of the outcomes and treatment of BME individuals in the UK criminal justice system. He noted that statistics suggested some forms of discrimination in the UK were even worse than in the US in several cases.

“My conclusion is that BME individuals still face bias, including overt discrimination, in parts of the justice system” – MP David Lammy

The MP highlighted the fact that there was “greater disproportionality” in the number of black people in prisons in England and Wales than in the US. Black people make up 3% of population here in England and Wales and around 12% of the prison population, compared with our American counterparts with 13% and 35% respectively.

What has caused this? 

Lammy named but a few “complex issues” which contributed to disproportionality in youth custody. These include: cuts to local authorities, police authorities, increased deprivation within housing estates and reduced funding for youth and mental health services. 

The MP also voiced the common concern over a lack of diversity in the judiciary – an issue which hasn’t yet been addressed in the two years since the review was published. “Courts are too distant from the communities they put on trial…. we desperately need to find more black judges. – MP David Lammy

We can also see that the police force playing a large role in the targeting of predominantly BME background persons, with figures showing that the Metropolitan police increased its use of stop and search in 2018, rising among London’s minority black population. 

Black people make up 15.6% of London’s population while white people make up 59.8%. In 2018, 43% of searches were of black people, while 35.5% were of white people. 

What can be done? 

“England and Wales are now hitting an American scale of disproportionality in our youth justice system. The government urgently needs to step up implementation of my review.” – MP David Lammy

MP Lammy said that prosecutions against some black and minority-ethnic suspects should be deferred or dropped to help tackle the bias against them in the criminal justice system of England and Wales.

He stated that sometimes, special allowances should be made for younger defendants’ immaturity, and that criminal records should be sealed to help former offenders find work in the future. 

“Early intervention works to close the gaps in outcomes between children growing up in poorer and better-off households. It’s an equaliser. That’s why it’s such an important plank of any government strategy for social mobility.” – Donna Molloy, the director of policy and practice at the Early Intervention Foundation 

There is no “silver bullet” for tackling the UK-wide issue of the bias against BME individuals which has been fundamentally institutionalised. The government needs to listen, and listen well, to those on the front lines of this issue who are providing startling statistics which allude to the truth that our prison and rehabilitation system is fundamentally built against BME identifying people.

Ayse Naz Karakurt is an Assistant Manager for the Pro Bono Society’s Equality in Leadership Department.

Tasmyn Ong is a Co-Manager of the Pro Bono Society’s Equality in Leadership Department

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