Scales of justice must be equal


The very idea of justice is that it should be balanced and fair. So the report today from David Lammy into racial biases in Britain’s courts and prisons should be a wake-up call to everyone who believes the scales of justice should be balanced equally between all citizens regardless of race, gender, status or any other defining characteristic.

Many people have known about the problems of racial disparities in the ‘criminal justice system’ for years. Previous studies have highlighted heavier custodial sentences handed out to black defendants... for the same crime. We also know about disproportionate use of police stop and search which sucks a greater proportion of BME people into the system in the first place. Let’s be clear that a key reason for this is the stereotyping of black men in particular in society, which drive up school exclusions and job market barriers. If you are black and Muslim there is a double whammy.

The difference the Lammy report could make is that it ties several issues together, such as how the Crown Prosecution Service operate, and issues facing BME women. Even more importantly, his report speaks to the “burning injustices” that Prime Minister Theresa May spoke about on the steps of Downing Street. If these words meant anything, she and the government should implement all 35 recommendations in full.

If we are seeing a relaxing of austerity the government should also put resources into better monitoring and increasing staffing in prisons. Currently just 2% of prison officers are from a BME background, compared to 60% of prisoners. Dealing with this will help tackle some of the areas of unfairness within prison walls such as disproportionate use of force on BME inmates, and greater likelihood of being put in solitary confinement.

OBV director Simon Woolley was an advisory panel member on the Lammy review. The report review also raises the issue of BME youth reoffending rates. It is important to tackle this, however ending the revolving door to prison, often for petty offences, will require action not just within the criminal justice system but also greater opportunities for legitimate work in the labour market. To that end, employers should make greater efforts to hire ex-offenders and not to screen them out unless the role demands it.

Racial discrimination in the prison system is compounded by discrimination elsewhere in the criminal justice system, for example disproportionality in police stop and search, charging, and being more likely to receive a longer sentence for the same crime. The cumulative impact of these factors is a national scandal. Inside prisons the problem is made worse by funding cuts that have reduced the system’s capacity for tackling disproportionality and discrimination.

This report must not be allowed to gather dust on Whitehall shelves. It demands action from government on tackling racial unfairness in criminal justice to make the scales of justice truly balanced. But it also requires joined-up thinking on how the pipeline can be stemmed to stop the flow of BME young talent into the prison complex. And that means involving employers, and authorities working more closely with BME communities to offer more support, opportunities and life chances to those at risk of wasting their best years.

Lester Holloway

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