Ethnicity, gender and community sentences

The 2017 Lammy Review indicated marked ethnic inequalities within the criminal justice system. It also highlighted a lack of evidence on the causes of inequalities.

My previous Data First project, An Investigation into Racial Bias In Court Case Outcomes In England and Wales, focused principally on ethnic differences in the use of prison sentences. I found that men and women from ethnic minority groups receive prison sentences with fewer previous convictions compared to White men and women. That is even after controlling for other things such as age and offence type, as set out in my Data Insight and accompanying blog

Community sentences are sentences that are served in the community rather than in prison. The use of community sentences has declined considerably over the last decade. Over the same period, the use of immediate prison sentences has increased. This is concerning because community sentences used well can reduce the number of short prison sentences. Community sentences have consistently been found to be better than short prison sentences in preventing reconviction and are considerably less costly financially. Short prison sentences on the other hand, can lead to family breakdown and children being placed in care. They can lead to loss of housing and employment and disrupt education as well as treatment programmes for things like drug and alcohol use. Short prison sentences create instability which can contribute to future offending.

One of the reasons for the decline in community sentences could be a loss of confidence by magistrates that they are an effective alternative to prison and can reduce crime or rehabilitate offenders. Therefore, evidence on which community sentence requirements are most effective in this regard and for whom could potentially contribute to restoring confidence in community sentences.

There is also a lack of information on the relationships between ethnicity, gender and the requirements and effectiveness of community sentences. Better understanding of these relationships has been identified as crucial by HM Inspectorate of Probation’s (HMIP’s) thematic inspections in relation to gender and ethnicity. In the press release accompanying the thematic inspection on ethnicity, the Chief Inspector of Probation called for an urgent improvement in the standard of work with ethnic minority service users. To allow this to happen he stated that ‘Data should be gathered and published to identify and address trends, for example if particular ethnic groups are breached or recalled to prison at a disproportionate rate’.

Equality is not about treating everyone the same. Equality needs to take account of diversity and inclusivity. We need an approach to criminal justice which takes account of the different needs of women and men and the needs of people from different ethnic groups. To enable that, we need data that is broken down by gender and ethnicity, so that we can work towards equality of outcomes.

Examining the impact of ethnicity and gender on community sentences

The de-identified datasets made available via the Ministry of Justice Data First programme give access to case-level administrative data. They include information on aspects such as sentence requirements, age, type of offence, whether there are subsequent convictions, and more. 

I will use the data to see if there are differences between men and women and between ethnic groups in the requirements of community sentences. That is whether there are differences in what people are required to do after taking account of things such as the offence type. I will explore whether some requirements are more likely to be completed successfully and whether some are more likely to prevent further offending. I will also establish whether unsuccessful completion might make a prison sentence more likely for a subsequent offence. Further information can be found on my project page.

Informing the drivers of inequality

My aim is to inform policy to work towards more equal and just outcomes for everyone, regardless of who they are. I also aim to inform policy to make better use of sentences which are less likely to lead to reoffending.

I am liaising closely with the Ministry of Justice, the Crown Prosecution Service, Revolving Doors, the Prison Reform Trust, the Sentencing Academy and other third sector stakeholders to make sure the analysis is as policy relevant and impactful as possible.

The project will provide more information on the relationships between community sentence requirements, ethnicity and gender. This will enable policy decisions to be better targeted in terms of providing equality of outcomes by identifying whether certain requirements are more effective with some groups than others. It will contribute to the principle of ‘explain or reform’ recommended in the Lammy Review by providing further information on the drivers of inequalities.

Read more about Dr Angela Sorsby’s project.  

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