Number of convictions before receiving a short, immediate prison sentence: ethnicity and gender differences

Research indicates that people of minority ethnic backgrounds are overrepresented within the criminal justice system in England and Wales. This issue was highlighted by the Lammy Review which identified the need to investigate and publish how criminal justice outcomes differ for people of different backgrounds.

My research project uses Ministry of Justice Data First magistrates’ and Crown Court datasets to examine differences between ethnic groups in court case outcomes. The dataset contains all court convictions from 1 January 2013 to 31 December 2020.

The topic of my research came from a meeting with Revolving Doors, a charity that champions long-term solutions for justice reform. Revolving Doors said it would be interesting to look at differences between groups of people in the number of convictions they have prior to getting a prison sentence. That is a custodial sentence with immediate effect, rather than one that is suspended. They felt this could be particularly interesting where the prison sentence was for a relatively minor offence.

To identify prison sentences for less serious offences - offences that could potentially have been dealt with using a community-based sentence instead - I based the analysis on prison sentences of less than one year.  The Data First datasets include only convictions from 1 January 2013 onwards. To include previous convictions over a reasonable time period I based the analysis only on short prison sentences given between 1 January 2018 and 31 December 2020. This meant that the dataset included previous convictions over at least a five-year period. 

What I found

The chart below from my Data Insight published in August 2022 gives the average number of convictions a person has prior to receiving a short prison sentence. It has been broken down by broad ethnic group and by gender. It can be seen for both men and women that people in the White ethnic group on average have more convictions before they receive a short prison sentence than those in other ethnic groups.

Figure 1: Number of convictions before a short sentence of immediate custody

Since writing this Data Insight I have conducted further statistical analyses which controlled for:

  • plea type (whether the person pleaded guilty)
  • court type (magistrates’ or Crown Court)
  • offence type (whether it was a violent crime)
  • age (at the time of the offence for which the person received the prison sentence).

My further analysis indicates that, even after controlling for the above variables, White men still have significantly more previous convictions before they receive a short prison sentence than men in any other ethnic group. White women have significantly more previous convictions before they receive a short prison sentence than women in any other ethnic group apart from ‘mixed’ ethnicity. It is not possible to control for other factors which could also be important such as social deprivation and motivation for committing the offence.

Why it matters

It is concerning that people from ethnic minority groups receive a short prison sentence with fewer convictions. Women in the ‘other’ ethnic group for example get a short prison sentence with only one-third of the number of convictions of White women. Based on a significant body of evidence, the Ministry of Justice’s Female Offender Strategy states that prison “is intended as a last resort” (MoJ 2018, p.17). Short prison sentences give only limited protection to the public, while providing insufficient time for meaningful rehabilitative activities. Short prison sentences have consistently been found to be less effective than community sentences in preventing reconviction. They can aggravate vulnerabilities causing crises in employment, housing and contact with dependents (MoJ 2018, par. 54). A recommendation of the Lammy Review was ‘explain or reform’.  Therefore, steps need to be taken to explain or rectify differences in the number of convictions people have before getting a short prison sentence.  


This work was produced using administrative data accessed through the ONS Secure Research Service. The use of the ONS data in this work does not imply the endorsement of the ONS or data owners (e.g. MoJ and HM Courts and Tribunals Service) in relation to the interpretation or analysis of the statistical data. This work uses research datasets which may not exactly reproduce National Statistics aggregates. National statistics follow consistent statistical conventions over time and cannot be compared to Data First linked datasets.


Find out more about Dr Angela Sorsby's project.   

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