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BAME people with a criminal record - the triple penalty

By Iqbal Wahhab OBE

In a country that largely likes to celebrate its racial diversity, we often ignore the fact that our criminal justice system is way more diverse than it should be. Black people make up 12% of the prison population, yet 3% of the population as a whole. All ethnic minorities together make up 26% of our prisoners yet 14% of the country.

It’s approaching two years since David Lammy MP’s devastating report and indictment on racial bias at every stage of our justice system. Government took his findings seriously. We became aware that black people were two and a half times more likely to be issued a caution than others, that the rate of prosecutions for black male defendants was more than three times higher than for white male defendants.

You’d have thought that a collective sense of shame would start seeing a reversal of these trends and you’d be wrong. On every major index on disproportionality in the criminal justice system since Lammy’s report, things have actually got worse for people of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds.

The issues as to why this is the case are deep and complex, ranging from exclusion in schools to an inherent distrust in being treated fairly in courts because of their race meaning that BAME defendants being much more likely to plead not guilty, which will lead to them receiving longer custodial sentences if found guilty.

A report published this week by the campaigning charity Unlock highlights the biggest problem people from a BAME background with a criminal record face on release – getting a job.  Nearly four out of five surveyed who identified with this category said it was the main problem they faced. Christopher Stacey, the author of the report, observes: “Black and Asian defendants have consistently had the longest average custodial sentence length since 2012. Longer sentences take longer to become spent (if they ever do), meaning a criminal record will cause more difficulties for longer. This is an additional penalty for Black and Asian defendants - what Lammy refers to as the double penalty is in fact a triple penalty.”

Around three quarters of businesses in Britain still ask job applicants if they have a criminal record. If the “Ban the Box” campaign to drop this were more successful, it would lift the employability chances for all people with a criminal record, though particularly for those of BAME backgrounds as they are more likely to fall foul of this procedure in the first place, and therefore significantly less prone to re-offend.

Young black men are also twice as likely to be unemployed as their white counterparts. Around the same time as David Lammy’s report, another conducted for government by Baroness Ruby Macgregor-Smith into racial bias in the workforce calculated that if British companies recruited evenly across all ethnicities, the economy would receive a £24billion boost.

Whilst we must keep up pressure on government to reverse ethnic anomalies across the justice estate, businesses need to step up too not just for the sake of fairness but with Brexit looming, to gain a competitive advantage too.

Iqbal Wahhab OBE chairs the criminal justice campaigning body EQUAL and is the current High Sheriff of Greater London