By Alexandra Williams.
The UK criminal justice system overrepresents Black people more than the US criminal justice system, that has in recent years become known globally for its racist police brutality. If you compare UK prisons to US prisons, you will find Black people are more overrepresented in the UK. That might be hard to believe, but it’s true.
Racial inequalities in the criminal justice system are evident at every level. When we discuss the criminal justice system, this doesn’t simply refer to the police, but includes stop and searches and arrests by the police, prosecutions, convictions, custodial demands, custodial sentences and prison population.
Of all ethnic groups, Black people are the most overrepresented group in the entire system. In the last census, Black people made up 3% of the population, yet represent anywhere between 10% and 22% of those who are currently within or moving through the criminal justice system. White people, however, are under-represented at every, single stage. Doesn’t seem right, does it?
According to the Ministry of Justice, Black people make up 4 times more of the prison population than that of the general population. Despite our reputation as having a ‘less racist’ justice system, this means the overrepresentation of Black people is higher in the UK than in the USA.
There are many reasons why this is likely to be new information to you. The USA has the largest prison population in the world, still uses capital punishment, and their police officers have more guns than ours do. This leads to more media attention, more public violence, and more vocal criticism. But behind closed doors and rhetoric of democracy and justice, our ‘more racist’ friends across the pond are not actually the ones with the highest overrepresentation of Black people in their prisons. We are.
At this point, you may expect a rebuttal from the more right-wing inclined, about how maybe Black people just commit more crimes? About ‘Black’ gangs in London and the cultural accuracy of Top Boy? Of course, criminal activity has long been linked to inequality, with the Black population and communities in the UK facing lower levels of education, poorer housing and lower incomes. However, this explanation can’t explain why Black people have longer sentences and harsher punishments compared to White people.
These issues are structural. It’s important to remember that there is a long history of Black people being viewed as inferior and innately criminal in the UK and beyond. Stereotypes of ethnic minorities, perpetuated by the media and contemporary right-wing political rhetoric, paint Black men as criminally inclined, drug-abusing and violent, and Asian men as disorderly, radical, culturally separatist and inclined towards Islamic terrorism. These stereotypes help cement the public linkage between violence and non-white people. These views, in turn, impact the people who work in the criminal justice system, and how they treat POC people as a result. Not just limited to police officers, PPCs, judges, lawyers and civil servants are all complicit. When a person’s criminal sentence is left in the hands of a jury, when ordinary people decide whether someone is guilty or not, these stereotypes take on a real and violent reality that makes or destroys lives, and almost always discriminates, whether consciously or not.
Calling out institutional racism is not the same as accusing all police officers of being racist. But we can’t get away from the fact we have a problem in the police force itself too.
Many pieces of research have found evidence of a racist culture in the police towards ethnic minorities, which should not be a surprise to anyone who has listened to POC experiences with the police. You just need to look at the stop and search data, where Black people are overrepresented by a factor of 7. Police officers choose who to stop and search, and have been granted allowances to make it easier to do so at their often discriminatory discretion. Ask any young, black man who has grown up in London whether they’ve been stopped and searched, and it will sharply contrast the response of White men living in the same city, in the same boroughs.
The government and leadership of police forces need to take a central role in tackling institutional racism if it is ever going to change. Institutional racism is defined as a collective failure towards people based on their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen in discriminatory processes, attitudes and behaviour, that has manifested in the culture we see today. Embedded in the structure of our criminal justice system, everyone at all rungs of the institution must take responsibility for our own biases, working to identify them, change them, and calling out racism.
How we fix this is for another article and is not a question one person can answer alone. But I’m sure you’ll agree it must be answered and is a tragic problem that can no longer be ignored.
Alexandra holds a BA in Applied Social Sciences from the University of York and recently completed an MSc in Gender, Equalities and Policy from the London School of Economics. She previously worked in political campaigns and since finishing her Master’s works on campaigns and policy in the housing sector. Alexandra’s academic interests have often focused on ethnic and racial inequalities; with her recent dissertation focusing on how Nigerian women’s reproductive choices are subject to the UK Department for International Developments’ population control agenda and their cooptation of feminism.
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