London Letter: A black and white picture of race in the legal system

Afro-Caribbean offenders are givenlonger sentences, a report has shown

The scales of justice at the Old Bailey in London. A new report in Britain has found that the average prison sentence given to white criminals is seven months shorter than that given to Afro-Caribbean offenders. Photograph: Stephen Hird/Reuters

The scales of justice at the Old Bailey in London. A new report in Britain has found that the average prison sentence given to white criminals is seven months shorter than that given to Afro-Caribbean offenders. Photograph: Stephen Hird/Reuters


Meeting black youths in sink estates in south London is often, if not always, a depressing experience: life ambitions are limited, while their life chances are often even more constrained.

In all such conversations, when one can get them to speak, one refrain is common: the police and legal system are against them; they are subject to harassment and suffer more harshly than others.

Often, it can be difficult to pay heed, since many of the speakers will have conviction records as long as the proverbial arm of the law.

Recently, however, an official report from the ministry for justice appeared to go some way to agreeing with them. Even more extraordinarily, ministers believe the problem is getting worse.

The average prison sentence given to white criminals, regardless of nationality, is seven months shorter than that given to Afro-Caribbean offenders.

Increasing concern
Ministers are aware that there are problems in the judicial system and say work has begun to address an area of increasing concern.

The document, Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System 2012, shows that black criminals are less likely than others to receive police cautions but they are more likely to be prosecuted than any other ethnic group. This is no aberration over one year, as the report looks at the figures for four. “This pattern was observed for all offence groups except for robbery, where nearly all persons across all ethnic groups were proceeded against,” says
the report.

The most common penalty imposed on white criminals who appear before magistrates or judges is a community sentence. For blacks, it
is custody.

Tougher sentences
Statisticians worked hard to cope with quirks that could skew the figures, breaking down their data by the types of crime committed. This, it is argued, rules out the possibility that black defendants are facing tougher sentences because they are committing more serious types of crime.

In addition, blacks are still six times more likely to be stopped by police under stop-and-search laws than whites. Asians and mixed-race youths are twice as likely as whites to be stopped.

“Persons from the black ethnic group were nearly three times more likely to be arrested compared with white persons,” says the report.

Those found guilty of sexual offences, on average, get the toughest sentences, though blacks get the longest for these crimes. On average, they are sentenced to 61.3 months in jail; whites, on average, get 54.8 months, while Asians get 48.6 months.

Here, however, the courts system has grounds to defend itself, since just over half of all blacks jailed in 2012 for sexual offences were convicted of rape. By contrast, just a quarter of whites found guilty of sexual offences were convicted of rape, rather than lesser sexual offences. For Asian men, a third were guilty of rape.

Equally,London’s gang culture may partly explain the differences between whites and blacks when it comes to sentences for violence against the person. Whites in England and Wales have both the lowest custody rate and serve the shortest sentences for such crimes, compared with any other ethnic group.

Last year, white offenders served on average 18.2 months, compared with 29.3 months for blacks, the ministry of justice report says. “These differences in average custody sentencing length are in part a consequence of the number and type of
violence-against-the-person offences committed, which differs across ethnic groups,” it went on.

Those from the black community who seek to stand in parts of the courtroom other than the dock face hurdles too. Just 0.6 per cent of black solicitors are partners in firms, according to research from the 2013 Diversity League Table published by the Black Solicitors Network.

Positive discrimination
Talk of positive discrimination raises hackles in the legal community, which prides itself on being a meritocracy – a meritocracy often that exists on rhetoric, rather than fact.

The Black Solicitors Network favours a solution put forward by Supreme Court judge Baroness Hale – who has criticised the difficulties put in the way of women of all colours. In cases where candidates for employment are tied on ability then the candidate from less well-represented groups should be favoured, she has argued.

Lawyer Bibi Gadwah, who leads a highly regarded family law practice, proposes a different solution – black and ethnic minority should set up their own firms. “There is no point battering at the door and not getting anywhere. We have to do it for ourselves,” said the Guyanese-born lawyer.

However, the future is not entirely bleak since one-third of all law students in England and Wales today are from a minority ethnic background and many are black.

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