criminal justice

Does our criminal justice system work for ethnic minorities?

There is increasing concern that Britain’s criminal justice system treats black, minority and ethnic (BME) people more harshly than their white counterparts. Such concerns are not new. In 1999, the official report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence found that the Metropolitan Police was “institutionally racist”. However, concerns now relate to all aspects of the criminal justice system, including policing but also the sentencing of BME people and their experiences of prisons.


Confident rates in the police are particularly low among BME individuals. In 2015-16, around 80% of adults felt confidence in their local police. Yet, confidence levels were lowest among Black adults and those from a Mixed background. Individuals among such groups were around six percentage points less likely to report confidence in the police than white adults. Confidence was lowest among the youngest adults with only around 60% black people aged 16 to 24 reporting confidence in the police.

There are a number of potential causes of this. First, BME individuals are significantly more likely to be the victims of crime. In 2015-16, for instance, almost 20% of mixed race adults were the victim of a crime compared to around 14% of white adults. Moreover, police forces are frequently made up of predominantly white officers. No police force in England and Wales currently has BME representation that matches its local demographic. While 11 police forces have no BME officers above the rank of Inspector.

There is also concern about how suspected criminals are treated by the police. Since 2008-9, there has been a significant reduction in the use of Stop and Search powers which allow police officers to to stop and search individuals if they have ‘reasonable grounds’ to suspect they are carrying certain contraband. However, despite these reductions, such powers are still used disproportionately against BME individuals. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has found that, in some areas, black people are 29 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people.

In custody and sentencing

There is significant concern that BME individuals are subjected to unfair sentencing practices by courts. This concern recent provoked a review of the criminal justice system by the Labour MP David Lammy.

Before a person accused of a crime stands trial, they may be held in custody until their trial or they may be released on bail until their trial dates. In 2016, Black defendants at the Crown Court, particularly Black males, were the most likely to be remanded in custody, whereas White and Asian defendants were less likely to be remanded in custody. However, the subsequent conviction rates for different ethnic groups do not suggest bias. In 2016, white defendants had the highest conviction ratio - defined as the number of offenders convicted as a proportion of the number prosecuted - at 86%, while all other ethnic groups had conviction ratios of 81%.

Despite the similar conviction rates, there are significant differences in the length of sentencing. In 2016, the average custodial sentence length received by different ethnic groups varied significantly. For instance, white offenders received an average sentence of 18 months while black and Asian offenders received the longest average custodial sentences at 24 and 25 months respectively. It must be noted, however, that these statistics do not take into account the context of crimes. For instance, they do not control for factors such as the offences dealt with, which may differ by ethnic group.

In detention

There is also concern that different ethnic groups have wildly different experiences of prisons. Since 2011 there has been a significant increase in assaults in adult prisons across all ethnic groups. For instance, the number of assault incidents in adult prisons increased by a third in a year alone (between 2014 and 2015).

Adult prisoners from a mixed ethnic background are mostly likely to be the assailants in such incidents. But, they are also most likely to be the victims of such incidents. In contract, Asian prisoners are the least likely to be involved in such incidents.

Self-inflicted deaths are a relatively rare in prisons. However, such incidents disproportionately affect white prisoners who account for over five times the number of self-inflicted deaths than all other ethnic groups combined. Similarly, self-harm also disproportionately affects white prisoners whose rates of self-harm are more than three times higher than Asian prisoners and more than five times higher than Black prisoners.


There is rising concern about how Britain’s criminal justice system treats individuals from different ethnic groups. Evidence suggests that certain BME people are more harshly treated in certain areas. For example, certain BME groups are much more likely to be subjected to so-called Stop-and-Search powers, are less likely to be granted bail, and are more likely receive harsher sentences. However, in other aspects, there does not appear to be considerable bias. White defendants have a higher conviction rate and are more likely to commit self harm in prisons or be involved in a self inflicted death.

James Dobson is a senior researcher at Bright Blue