A justice system that works for all?

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David Lammy MP has spoken out on racism in the criminal justice system

David Lammy MP has been a powerful advocate for justice following the Grenfell Tower fire, calling for corporate manslaughter charges to be brought, and he has spoken out regularly against racism. Last month his review of how black people are treated in the criminal justice system grabbed headlines for highlighting discrimination, but does it go far enough? Claire Dissington assesses his proposals.

As someone who works in the criminal justice system, I was excited to see the publication of David Lammy’s report into the treatment of, and outcomes for, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals within it. It rightly grabbed headlines last month for highlighting the hugely disproportionate number of ethnic minority people in prison.

Lammy, Labour MP for Tottehman, set out to look at what happens after arrest and how BAME men and woman are treated by the prosecution, the courts, their defence lawyers, the prison system and finally how they are treated in terms of rehabilitation following prison.

The report gives startling, if not unexpected, statistics. BAME men and women make up 14 percent of the population and yet 25 percent of the prison population. Worse, 40 percent of young people, children, in custody are from BAME backgrounds.

The disproportionality in the number of black people in prisons is greater here than in the US.

The review addresses the issues of other minorities who have not been included before, such as Gypsies, Roma and Travellers. They make up 0.1 percent of the population and yet 5 percent of male prisoners. Muslims make up 5 percent of the population and 15 percent of the prison population.

Just to be able to quote these statistics to magistrates and judges is fantastically important. Lammy is right to say the figures represent “wasted lives”, and hopes his recommendations will benefit black and white working class men, women and children. He wants a better justice system for all.

But his recommendations are not enough to challenge a system which is racist to the core.

The report doesn’t explain why BAME people are over-represented in prisons and the courts. When the statistics, of which there are many, point at more black people in custody his recommendation to the government is “Explain or reform”. But the fact is that it matters not whether BAME youth are committing crimes; they will be targeted anyway.

The report places a huge emphasis on cataloguing and recording the disproportionality, which is important, but there is no real explanation for why it exists or what can be done about it.

For example, the section on the Crown Prosecution Service makes a good point that the criminal justice system must stop calling groups of young people “gangs”. Lammy talks about SUS laws and how they have helped sow distrust in the police force. He addresses how half of those convicted under “joint enterprise” are BAME.

But his proposal that redacting information on cases from the police so that they can make “race blind” decisions on prosecution will do little to improve the situation. The CPS is slightly less likely to charge black people, 98 to every 100 white men, but the disproportionality is statistically insignificant.

The report shows BAME people are more likely to plead not guilty, 40 percent compared to 31 percent of white defendants. Lammy attributes this to them not trusting the system. But another explanation could be that they didn’t commit the crime.

His recommendations include community intermediaries at police stations, better access to legal rights and people placed in drug or alcohol treatment rather than prosecution. But the swingeing cuts to legal aid, the inadequate funding for drug and alcohol treatment and the number of poorly paid criminal lawyers who are leaving the profession, curtailing access to solicitors at a police station, all put barriers in the way of this. The police would love detainees having “community intermediaries” rather than robust legal advice from a properly trained lawyer.

Lammy claims that the one stage of the system which is not unfair is a jury trial, but this right has also been chipped away at by government cuts over the past 20 years.

One of the most astounding statistics in the report is that black men are 240 percent more likely to be jailed for drug offences. Again Lammy fails to explain why, ignoring the issue of drug use and its criminalisation.

He points out that the government is closing 86 courts around the country, making it harder for many people to access them. He suggests “justice spaces” where young people could be in less formal places, near their homes, for their court appearances, though he doesn’t go as far as to make this a recommendation.

Lammy highlights how BAME inmates are more likely than white ones to be “victimised”, less likely to have their needs assessed properly and more likely to have mental health or learning problems overlooked. They are also far more likely to be placed in high security prisons. For public order offences there are 417 black men in prison for every 100 white men.

He recommends recruiting more BAME prison officers in order to address these issues — but recent cuts to the recruitment of prison officers undercuts this proposal.

But the most important omission from Lammy’s 103-page report is the word “racism”; there is just one mention of the inbuilt prejudice that lies at the heart of any explanation as to why BAME people are treated so disproportionately.