Ethnic Inequalities in the Criminal Justice System

Categories: Blogs, ADR England, Office for National Statistics, Crime & justice

Written by Dr Kitty Lymperopoulou​​​​​​​ 3 August 2021

In recent years, there has been considerable policy interest in the existence of ethnic inequalities in the way people are treated in society. Following a series of high-profile events such as The Black Lives Matter global protests, sparked by the killing of African American, George Floyd in the US, ethnic disparities in policing and the Criminal Justice System (CJS) have come into the forefront of public and political debates

The 2017 Lammy Review, commissioned by two UK governments, shone a light on the treatment and outcomes of ethnic minority people in the CJS. From the point of arrest, through prosecution to custodial remand, sentencing and imprisonment, ethnic minority groups were shown to be both disproportionately represented, and to experience disproportionately worse outcomes.

While the Lammy Review demonstrated the presence of stark ethnic inequalities, it also highlighted the lack of evidence into the causes of inequalities. This was the motivation behind a call to ‘explain or reform’, in which CJS agencies were asked to provide evidence-based explanations for ethnic disparities or introduce reforms to address them.

Following the Lammy Review, the Ministry of Justice made a commitment to improve the collection of data to help address disparities across the CJS. The magistrates’ and Crown Court datasets developed as part of the Data First programme enable researchers to address this evidence gap for the first time.  

What are the aims of my project?

There is a complex array of factors that impact differential outcomes in the CJS between white and ethnic minority groups. Defendant characteristics such as gender, age, and socio-economic status, and offence characteristics such as the severity and type of conviction offence, previous offending, and plea decision, are thought to explain some of the observed ethnic disparities. The type of court where defendants appear, and contextual and organisational factors of courts may also underlie observed ethnic disparities.

As one of the first users of the Data First datasets, I have the opportunity to examine some of these factors in a more comprehensive way than was previously possible. It is only after contextualising the factors that influence differential experiences and outcomes in the CJS are taken into account, that we can begin to identify effective ways of addressing ethnic inequalities.

Over the next year I will be developing a study to provide comprehensive evidence on the extent and drivers of ethnic inequalities in the CJS in England and Wales. The main objectives of the study are to:

  • Generate new evidence to explain ethnic inequalities in experiences and outcomes in magistrates’ and Crown Courts.
  • Deepen understanding about the factors creating disparities in sentencing outcomes between ethnic groups.
  • Examine the relative contribution of defendant, case, and court factors in explaining ethnic differentials in court outcomes, at different stages of the CJS. 
  • Determine how much of the ethnic gap in court outcomes and sentencing practices can be attributed to compositional and structural factors.
  • Provide effective and tangible recommendations to address inequalities in the CJS.

The study findings are expected to enable agencies involved in the CJS to develop strategies to address ethnic inequalities in effective and tangible ways.

You can find out more about Kitty’s project, and those of other Fellows making use of the magistrates’ and Crown Court datasets, on the fellowship page.

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