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Offender management and rehabilitation

Fairness in the criminal justice system: what’s race got to do with it?

A man and two women walk down the stairs at HMP Thameside wearing Catch22 uniform. At the bottom of the stairs, there are rows of tables and chairs.

Over the past year Catch22 ran a series of focus groups in a UK prison to understand prisoners’ experience of racial bias in the criminal justice system. The findings show that that both black and white prisoners, as a whole, consider the criminal justice system to show widespread racial bias.

This report, produced as part of the Lammy Review, lays out a set of recommendations for how this can be rectified, including; clarity around decision making, representation of all races at a senior level across the criminal justice system and treating people, as people.

The principles of fairness and justice are intimately bound together. And yet there are many people in England and Wales who think that our criminal justice system is unfair.

We began this research against a well established backdrop of statistics. Research shows that it is ethnic minority groups, most notably those from a Black Caribbean and Mixed White and Black Caribbean background, with the sharpest perceptions of unfairness.

This report draws data from focus groups with people serving sentences of imprisonment inside an English prison. It focuses on prisoners’ perceptions of (un)fairness spanning the breadth of our criminal justice system, from policing, through to legal advice, sentencing, prisons and penal sanctions implemented in the community. While it explores perceptions of fairness in general, it focuses in particular on issues around racial discrimination.

The report aims to ensure that the voices of those inside the justice system inform the ongoing Lammy Review of ethnic minority representation in the criminal justice system. We wanted to provide the context to the quantitative study, shedding light on people’s lived experiences that lie behind the statistics. Statistics are important, providing stark evidence of racial disproportionality in the system, but statistics can only ever tell a partial story.

The people we work with in prison often feel that they lack a meaningful voice about issues that profoundly affect their lives – they are the nameless, faceless individuals behind the annual crime statistics. We believe that the experiences and first-hand insights conveyed in this report will help to facilitate better policies at a strategic and operational level, encouraging a fairer, more effective justice system.

Key findings show:

  • There was a widespread perception that at sentencing, a number of stakeholders including the police, the prosecution and the judiciary came together to ‘conspire’ against the interests of defendants, undermining people’s rights to a fair and impartial trial process.
  • There is a lack of diversity in police forces, particularly in relation to senior positions. Participants were concerned about a perceived lack of diversity on juries and among members of the judiciary, particularly in terms of race, but also in terms of age and social class. This lack of diversity was thought to preclude an adequate understanding of the daily challenges faced by many defendants.
  • Participants were frustrated with opaque decision-making across the criminal justice system, from being stopped for a crime through to sentencing and how they were treated in prison. Opacity led them to believe that there were racial implications to decisions.
  • There is a lack of trust in lawyers: There was a marked lack of trust and confidence in legal aid lawyers from both white and ethnic minority prisoners. Participants believed the primary motivation of legal aid lawyers to be profit, rather than prioritising the interests of their clients. This lack of trust and confidence in legal aid lawyers meant that people were less likely to trust the advice they were given, particularly involving decisions around whether or not to plead guilty. This has huge implications for the length of sentence many people receive.
  • By far, the main policing grievance was stop and search.
  • There was a widespread perception that the best, and sometimes the only, way to get prison staff to act on prisoner requests or concerns was to behave aggressively – quiet prisoners, participants reported, were almost always ignored.
  • There was a perceived breakdown of order and safety in prisons, which many participants attributed to the loss of significant numbers of prison staff, or the replacement of older, experienced staff members with younger members of staff who lacked the competence or confidence to perform their roles effectively.