In March 2021, the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities published a report on race disparities in the UK – also known as the Sewell report. The Commission was established in 2020 following extensive Black Lives Matter protests all over the country and world, in response to the murder of George Floyd in the US as well as growing dissatisfaction with race inequality in the UK, including disproportionate representation in the criminal justice system and increased mortality from Covid-19. The fact that the report was commissioned at such a critical time for the country’s growing conversations on racism and discrimination, makes the conclusions of the Sewell report all the more disappointing.
This blog will focus on the report’s findings on criminal justice, and why they do a disservice to the lived experience of racially minoritised people in the criminal justice system and the extensive body of evidence that structural racism is at the root of the overrepresentation of racially minoritised people in the criminal justice system.
Overlooking how structural inequality leads to contact with the criminal justice system
It is widely acknowledged that social inequalities including limited access to suitable and safe accommodation, sustainable income, education, employment and adverse childhood experiences often lead to contact with the criminal justice system. According to the Social Metrics Commission’s annual report on measuring poverty in 2020, nearly half of Black African Caribbean households were in poverty, compared with just under one in five white families, while families from racialised minorities as a whole were between two and three times as likely to be in persistent poverty than white households. Black people are more than three times as likely to experience homelessness when compared to all other ethnicities combined, and racially minoritised people are more likely to live in overcrowded accommodation, and are almost twice as likely to be unemployed.
Despite this and while noting the impact of adverse childhood experiences and deprivation, the Commission states that “personal agency” is at the core of their outlook, claiming “offending behaviour should not be excused as a consequence of dire personal circumstances.” In its target operational model for probation in England and Wales, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service acknowledges that poverty, deprivation, lack of suitable accommodation and lack of employment are all factors related to offending. However, the report has chosen to gloss over these factors without any proper interrogation, and instead treat contact with the criminal justice system as a form of moral failing for racially minoritised people.
No clear interrogation of why racially minoritised people are overrepresented
The report acknowledges that racially minoritised people are overrepresented at many points of the criminal justice system, noting disparities in stop and search, at the point of arrest, custodial sentencing and within the prison population. But it falls short of properly interrogating why this is – merely stating “there are many reasons for the disproportionate numbers of ethnic minority people involved in violent crime as both victims and perpetrators, but the disparity casts a significant shadow over Black life, and also contributes to negative stereotypes of young Black men.” These “many reasons” are never sufficiently explored.
The Lammy Review, in contrast, went much further in trying to identify and understand race disparities in the criminal justice system, using a Relative Rate Index (RRI) to isolate the effect of decision-making on disproportionality at each stage in the system. The RRI’s detail and rigour finds key disparities in plea decisions and likelihood of being tried in a Crown Court. One of the Lammy Review’s recommendations was that the government should consistently take on these rigorous standards to understand more about the impact of decisions at each stage of the criminal justice system. It is disappointing that the Commission’s report made little effort to deploy such analysis.
In our letter to the to the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities’ call for evidence on ethnic disparities and inequality in the UK, we urged the Commission to focus its attention on how policing and the policies and practice of the criminal justice system lead to disparities, and to explain or reform disparities where they do exist. Considering this, the side-stepping of disproportionate representation of racially minoritised people in the criminal justice system, particularly with regards to the imprisonment of young Black men, is disappointing.
Downplaying of institutional, systemic and structural racism
Differing definitions of systemic, institutional, and structural racism are set out in the report.
- The Commission define institutional racism as “applicable to an institution that is racist or discriminatory processes, policies, attitudes or behaviours in a single institution”
- Systemic racism as applying to “interconnected organisations, or wider society, which exhibit racist or discriminatory processes, policies, attitudes or behaviours”
- and structural racism describing “a legacy of historic racist or discriminatory processes, policies, attitudes or behaviours that continue to shape organisations and societies today”.
The Commission states that the term institutional racism is used “too casually as an explanatory tool”, and “can also lead to insufficient consideration of other factors which are also known to drive such differences in outcomes”. Further, it states that in Britain, the system is no longer “deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”, arguing that although “impediments and disparities do exist, they are varied, and ironically very few of them are directly to do with racism.”
Despite this argument, when discussing the overrepresentation of young Black men in gangs, the report acknowledges that research has shown that young men’s gang involvement can be linked to finding “refuge in a racist society” – but this society is exactly what the Commission attempts to downplay.
In our letter to the Commission, we called for a consistent cross-government strategy to tackle racial inequality in the criminal justice system and reduce criminalisation of young Black people, Muslim people and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people. We urged that this strategy recognise how structural racism across society effects the implementation of policies and impacts racially minoritised people specifically, increasing the risk of them coming into contact with the criminal justice system. It is very disappointing the Commission has taken a position which would indicate that this is unnecessary given its assertion that disparities are not often linked to racism.
Restricting the voice of the voluntary sector working on anti-racism
Following publication of the report the Runnymede Trust wrote a joint open letter calling on the Prime Minister to #RejectTheReport and implement the recommendations of the long-standing Macpherson, Lammy, Marmot and Williams reviews, which Clinks signed. Following this, in debate in parliament on the 20th April 2021, Conservative MP for South Holland and The Deepings Sir John Hayes said that he and 20 other members of the House had written to the Charity Commission to complain about the Runnymede Trust’s response to the report. Furthermore, Sir John Hayes asked for assurance from Minister for Equalities Kemi Badenoch that she make representations across the government to “stop the worthless work—often publicly funded—of organisations that are promulgating weird, woke ideas.”
The derision of voluntary sector organisations working on anti-racism as “worthless” and “weird” at a time when the conversation around racial inequality in the UK has never been more important is deeply concerning. Clinks is a signatory to the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (AVECO) joint statement from social sector leaders on the right to campaign, which states “many charities exist because the state has failed and a clear example of the failure of the state is a failure to dismantle race inequality in Britain.”
From our role in supporting voluntary organisations working in the criminal justice system, we have a deep understanding of both the extraordinary difference specialist voluntary organisations led by and focused on racially minoritised people can make and the severe challenges they face. Such organisations, which are rooted in the communities they serve, offer tailored support to racially minoritised people in the criminal justice system and are able to positively recognise and reaffirm people’s cultural identities in a way that aids desistance from crime. They are also able to recognise and address experiences of discrimination, which if ignored, can be a significant obstacle to desistance. The voluntary sector has ongoing and significant concerns about the overrepresentation of racially minoritised people in contact with the criminal justice system and the poor outcomes they experience. It is imperative that they are listened to, taken seriously, and consulted in conversations around race inequality, without fear of reprisals and complaints.
Clinks thinks all sectors working in criminal justice must work to tackle racism and discrimination – including the government, statutory services and the voluntary sector. This means that we all have our part to play in recognising our own role in sustaining this inequality, our own potential to challenge it and, ultimately, play a part in reversing it. Our aspiration is to make Clinks a truly anti-racist organisation in all we say and do, and how we operate internally and externally. Through our race and justice network and our continued influencing work, we will persist in challenging racism in the criminal justice system and working to support our member organisations to offer their racially minoritised service users the best support that they can.
In our continuing efforts to realise our ambition to be an antiracist organisation, we’re changing our language and removing the BAME acronym. Look out for our blog on Thursday 20th May to find out more.
Latest on Twitter
It is imperative that government prioritises and resources the tackling of race inequality in the criminal justice system. It is crucial that voluntary orgs led by and focussed on racially minoritised people are listened to, taken seriously and consulted in these conversations. https://twitter.com/HMIProbation/status/1451073306791223296