Where's the justice?

By Imran Choudhury, Eastern Eye

JUSTICE minister Damian Green has vowed to fix the criminal justice system after an official government study revealed it was “institutionally racist”.
 
The damning report found white offenders received more lenient sentences when compared to black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) criminals. Almost 20 per cent of black and Asian defendants were more likely to be sent to jail than those who were white and committed similar offences.
 
 
JUSTICE minister Damian Green has vowed to fix the criminal justice system after an official government study revealed it was “institutionally racist”.
 
The damning report found white offenders received more lenient sentences when compared to black, Asian and ethnic minority (BAME) criminals. Almost 20 per cent of black and Asian defendants were more likely to be sent to jail than those who were white and committed similar offences.
 
In an exclusive comment piece for Eastern Eye, Green said the disturbing report was a “stark reminder” of the need to eradicate inequalities in the system.
 
“We have a criminal justice system that is admired in all corners of the globe. It is transparent, it is open and it is one of the best in the world. But that’s not to say that it is free from problems.
 
“Taking action to address its shortcomings is vital if we are to increase public confidence in the fairness and effectiveness of the criminal justice system.
 
“The government is absolutely committed to making sure the criminal justice system is fair, inclusive and impartial, and represents and serves the whole community.
 
“It should work to promote equality and should not discriminate against anyone because of their race.”
 
However, campaign groups say the figures in the report titled Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System 2012 needed urgent attention. They have called on prime minster David Cameron to make the ministry of justice document a major item on his agenda.
 
The study, which was released last month, shows that in the past four years, the most common outcome for a white criminal was a community sentence but for black and Asian offenders, the most common sentence was imprisonment.
 
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said the report made “depressing reading” and showed it was crucial that people knew the justice system would “deal with them fairly and equally”.
 
“If the colour of your skin means you are treated unfairly by our justice system, then urgent action is required to address that. It confirms that your ethnic origin affects the type of sentence you get and how long you go to prison for.”
 
Sailesh Mehta, co-chair of the Society of Asian Lawyers and a judge in the crown court, said bias and unfairness existed in “every aspect” of the justice system.
 
“Every year, similar figures are published and every year there is the usual ritual hand-wringing from the establishment,” he told EE.
 
He said the only way to address “such unfairness” is by re-training judges and holding police officers accountable for their arrest figures.
 
“As a judge, I go on a training course every year which lasts a few days. Looking at these statistics and how inadvertently or adverdently the judges sentence black and Asian people more than they sentence white people should be part of that training course.
 
“Let’s have a discussion about that, make them more aware and then let’s start monitoring the judges. If there was the political will, and the Lord chief justice was shocked about this, then with one single letter he could correct this unfairness.
 
“The whole chain from beginning to end is to blame. So it’s not just the police, or the Crown Prosecution Service, or the judges; it’s everyone along the line.
 
“And in the end, it’s the politicians who need the political will to do something about it.”
 
Experts believe the justice system places too much focus in keeping up with political and legislative changes which places institutional discrimination and race inequalities lower down on the list of priorities.
 
“The criminal justice apparatus seems to have run out of steam and is incapable of stopping and thinking about the implications of over-representation,” said Neena Samota, chair of Voice4Change England, chair of the Coalition of Racial Justice (UK) and a member of stop and search watchdog StopWatch.
 
“The impact of the austerity measures and the privatisation of prisons and probation trusts has left personnel
too busy worrying about their livelihoods.”
 
Samota added that the “gateway into the system” was stop and search, where rates of ethnic disproportionality
illustrated the problem.
 
“The consistently high rates of ethnic disproportionality in relation to black and Asians, compared to the
white group at this entry point suggests that race is a factor in individual decision making on who to stop and
search” she said.
 
“If the criminal justice system is over-represented with people from ethnic minorities, what does the system do
with them once they are in to ensure they resettle successfully upon completion of their sentence? Disadvantage,
inequalities and experiences of racism also form part of the structural disadvantage faced by ethnic minorities.
 
“Unfortunately these important issues are not routinely considered when the system engages in decision making at the various stages.
 
“The system is too process-led and does not invest time and effort to focus on how to help achieve positive resettlement outcomes and to keep individuals and young people at-risk away from the system,” Samota added.
 
A roundtable discussion on the issue has been organised by former equality advisor to the London mayor, Lee Jasper,
and is set to take place at Portcullis House, Westminster, next Wednesday (11).
 
(Originally published in the Eastern Eye)