Influence the Disproportionate Rate of Black Imprisonment

Within the discipline of criminology the issue of disproportionality within the Prison system has become highly contentious. In seeking to address the issue we come up against difficult conceptual issues as well as a deficit of useful information. The primary conceptual problem is to decide what constitutes fairness in this context. In a Home Office study (1998) Flood-Page and Mackie refer to research showing that ethnic minorities are treated and act in different ways at the key stages in criminal process.

For example Afro-Caribbean's are less likely to admit an offence and therefore make them ineligible for a caution. This also means that they are less likely to benefit from the discount for a guilty plea. (Flood-page and Mackie, 1998 cited in Davies et al, 1999, p. 264) In their sentencing study based on 3,000 cases in 25 magistrates courts and 1,800 in 18 crown courts centres Flood-Page and Mackie conclude… "Asian men were significantly more likely to be sentenced to custody than would have been expected on the basis of their offences and other factors.

Those ethnic minority males were not significantly more likely to receive custodial sentence than white males when other factors were taken into account was confirmed by further analysis. The differences in custody rates were explained by variables such as the type and number of offences, their plea, whether they were subject to a court order when they committed the offences, being mentally ill or whether the offence was spontaneous"

(Flood-Page and Mackie 1998;cited in Davis ET al, p. 118-120) The prison statistics suggest that crime rates amongst Afro-Caribbean's are much higher than those for whites. The gulf is larger for women than for men but this would appear primarily to be explained by the presence of a relatively large number of foreign nationals (mainly from West Africa) sentenced for drug smuggling and due for deportation at the end of their sentences.

That is, Afro-Caribbean females who are normally residents in the UK may be over-represented in British prisons, but only to the same degree as their male counterparts. The Afro-Caribbean population is, on average, younger than the white and therefore a higher proportion of this group falls within the 'peak age' for offending (the peak age for offending is 18 for males and 14 for females Criminal Statistics: England and Wales, 1994-Home Office, 1995)

The prison population of England and Wales contains a disproportionately high number of Black prisoners (Croall, 1998, p157-159), with Afro-Caribbean's particularly over-represented; despite they're accounting for only a fraction of the general population. Many of the Indians, Pakistani and Bangladeshi prisoners are Muslims, and some recent research has shown how many Muslims are discriminated against while in prison. Despite HM Prison Service's race relation's policy statement, Muslims faced difficulties in maintaining their religion.

(Wilson and Sharp, 1998; cited in Wilson and Ashton, 1998, p. 85) In Particular, Afro- Caribbean males are strongly characterized by socio-economic factors associated with high offender rates (high levels of unemployment, low educational attainment and residence in high crime areas). However, no attempt has been made to see whether apparent ethnic differences in offending rates would diminish if unemployment, education and residence were taken into account. (McLauglin and Muncie, 1996,p. 131)

Studies which touch on the issue of court of trial find that Afro- Caribbean's are more likely than whites to be tried at Crown Court. There are two broad explanations for this: Firstly, Afro-Caribbean's are tried for more serious crimes; and secondly, a higher proportion of Afro-Caribbean's face triable-either-way charges which go to Crown Court, (an offence which is triable-either-way can be dealt with either in a magistrates' court or in a Crown Court, depending on the seriousness of the offence).

There is some conflict in the studies over the extent to which this is due to defendants electing trial by jury or to magistrates declining jurisdiction in cases involving Afro-Caribbean defendants. (Shallice and Gordon, 1990), whereas Brown and Hullin, in their study of magistrates court in Leeds in 1988, suggest that a much higher proportion of cases go to Crown Court as a result of committal by magistrates. (Brown and Hullin, 1992;cited in McLauglin and Muncie, 1996,p131) 'Although black defendants are more likely than whites to end up in Crown Court, this is not the result of their own decisions.

Among cases going to Crown Court, the proportion that have to be tried there (because the offence is indictable only) is higher for black male than for white male defendants. ' (Smith, D. J. cited In Maguire et al, 1997) The published statistics consistently show even greater over-representation of 'Blacks' in the remand population than amongst sentenced prisoners. Research conducted by Dr Roger Hood, Director of the Centre for Criminological Research at Oxford University published in 1992 has shed considerable light on the interaction of factors.

With a sample of 6,000 individuals sentenced at five Crown Courts in the West Midlands in 1989, found that black males had a 17 per cent greater chance of imprisonment than whites. (Guardian, 10 December 1992). His research also indicated a 5 per cent greater risk of custody for black males than whites with the same characteristics. Moreover, he points out that the disparity would have been even greater if Afro-Caribbean's had not already been disproportionately remanded in custody.

Remand in custody itself is a strong predictor that a custodial sentence is likely to be imposed, so discrimination is often cumulative. A greater number of Black than white males had been remanded in custody and at least part of the apparent discrimination can be attributed to this, rather than to discriminatory attitudes towards black males at the sentencing stage. In conclusion the study also found that racial discrimination can and does occur in the criminal justice system, and that it demonstrates the complexity of the problem (The Guardian, 31 January 1994)

It might be tempting to view the number of Black people in prison as proof that they commit more crime. However, successive analysis of prison statistics have shown that black people who commit offences are more likely to end up in prison than comparable white offenders, and that black people entering prison have on average fewer previous convictions than white people. This would seem to confirm that there is discrimination in the criminal justice process at those stages prior to imprisonment. '… In the majority of forces, proportionately more

Ethnic minority young people and particularly Afro-Caribbean's were referred for prosecution than white young people; in inner -city areas the difference was very substantial indeed. The widespread police view that such differences would indicate that, on average, ethnic minority young people were committing more serious offences was not borne out. Statistical control for 'offence type' (such as burglary, robbery etc) suggested that this factor played a very small part in explaining the differences in prosecution rates.

Controls for the number of past offences also suggested that this was not the main explanation'. (Commission for Racial Equality, Cautions and Prosecutions, 1992;cited by Smith, D. J. in Maguire et al. , 1997,p. 740) Our perception of what is happening around us is shaped by several factors. Personal experience, what politicians claim and what the media portray. All contribute to our understanding of race in this country. Moral panics are generated by fear, general fears concerning black people may include in particular the conception that black people are more likely to commit crime than white people.

This is most often seen in the fear of black youth that are frequently stereotyped as predators who have made our streets unsafe. In July 1995, for example, Sir Paul Condon, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, urged ethnic community leaders to recognize that 'it is a fact that very many of the perpetrators of muggings are very young black people'. His comments caused uproar, especially as many of the victims of these muggings were themselves young black people; nor did he draw attention to racial attacks on young black people by white youths.

One might also question his tactics, given that Sir Paul's comments were aimed at urging ethnic minority community leaders to join with him in a new initiative to combat street crime. Unfortunately, his comments merely confirmed the already widespread distrust between the various black communities and the criminal justice system, which has existed for some time. There is a variety of evidence to suggest that black people are over-represented as clients of the criminal justice system but under-represented as members of it's staff.

Research exists to show that at every stage of the policing, sentencing, imprisonment or probationary process, discrimination against black people takes place; despite the fact that research also shows that black people are more likely to be the victims, rather than the perpetrators of crime. This knowledge led one former Conservative Home Office Minister to conclude in 1991 that: ' I am a reluctant convert to the view that there appears to be an element of discrimination against ethnic minority offenders in our criminal process…

The fabric of our society is only sustainable if the mass of society consents to the criteria on which justice is administered. If a particular discrete, identifiable and self-identifiable sector of that society believe that there is a system of justice which is just for other people, but not just for them, whether or not that belief is well founded, the effects upon our society as a whole will be very damaging because those people will see the judicial system not as a means for maintaining law and order but as a means for keeping 'them' down and 'us' up.

That is a recipe for internecine warfare and is very dangerous' (Lord Elton, 1991;cited in Wilson and Ashton, 1998, p82) These findings go some way to explaining the uproar, which greeted the remarks of Sir Paul Condon, and to providing some balance to a stereotypical portrayal of who commits crime in this country. However, it should be remembered that most of the crime which is recorded and that is reported in victims surveys tend to be concentrated in areas of high unemployment, poorer housing inhibited by younger households.