People from a Black, Asian, ‘Mixed’ or ‘Chinese and other’ background were over-represented as defendants in the criminal justice system in 2019, according to Ministry of Justice (MoJ) data.

This was largely because people from these ethnic groups made up a disproportionate share of people arrested, and this carried through to the prosecution, conviction, and imprisonment stages. The MoJ categorises these ethnic groups as ‘BAME’.

Evidence also suggests that offenders from BAME backgrounds receive longer custodial sentences, which could be partly due to the higher rate of ‘not guilty’ pleading among defendants from these ethnic groups. This Insight looks at how different ethnic groups compared statistically in areas such as convictions, sentencing lengths, types of offence, pleas and at the bench in 2019 across England and Wales.

Our briefing on Race and Ethnic Disparities contains further analysis for individual ethnic groups.

Measuring disproportionality

The most comprehensive, recent exploration of ethnic group disproportionality in the justice system was the 2017 Lammy Review. This examined each stage of the criminal justice system including arrest, conviction, imprisonment and reoffending. The data used in the Lammy Review (from 2014 and 2015) is now somewhat out-of-date, so we have replicated this approach with the latest available data. We have used the term BAME here for consistency with the Lammy Review.

The simplest way to think about disproportionality is to compare the share of the general population that identifies as belonging to BAME groups with the share at specific stages within the justice system.

In 2019, according to the Annual Population Survey around 16% of the general population in England and Wales were from a BAME background. However, as shown in the chart below, people from BAME backgrounds made up 23% of people arrested, 21% of people convicted of a crime and 27% of people in prison.

A chart shows the proportion of people from BAME backgrounds in the general population and within the criminal justice system

The conviction ratio and sentence lengths

We can also go beyond simple comparisons and try to pin-point the specific junctures of the justice system where inequality arises. One example is to look at the ‘conviction ratio’ for defendants from different ethnic groups.

Overall, in 2019 defendants from the White ethnic group were more likely to be convicted (85% of which were found guilty) than those from BAME groups (79%). Here the White category includes: ‘British’, ‘Irish’ and ‘Any other White background’.

The higher conviction ratio might be partly explained by the higher rate of ‘guilty’ pleading among White defendants. If we look at defendants in Crown Court trials in 2019, 37% defendants from BAME groups pleaded ‘not guilty’ compared with 27% of White defendants. The Lammy Review explained that willingness to plead guilty is linked to trust in the fairness of the legal system.

A guilty plea carries a discount of up to one-third of sentence length at the sentencing stage, so the higher rate of ‘guilty’ pleading among White defendants could explain why we see longer average custodial sentence lengths (ACSL) being handed down to BAME offenders. The average in 2019 was 27.1 months for offenders from BAME backgrounds, compared with 19.5 months for White offenders.

What do the latest figures show on prosecutions?

The latest figures from the Ministry of Justice at the show that in 2019:

  • 23% of people prosecuted were from a BAME background.
  • BAME defendants were more over-represented in prosecutions for robbery (39%), drug offences (39%), and possession of weapons (31%).

A chart to show percentage of prosecutions where the defendant identified as BAME, by offence group

Pleas and convictions

  • 37% of BAME defendants who were tried in the Crown Court pleaded ‘not guilty’, compared to 27% of White defendants.
  • White defendants were more likely to be convicted and this might in part be due to their higher rates of pleading guilty.

Type of offence and sentencing

  • Drug offences were the largest category for which BAME offenders were convicted, while for White offenders this was theft. Half of the convictions of Black offenders were for drug offences or possession of weapons, compared to under a quarter of convictions of White offenders.
  • There was little difference in the overall rate of being sentenced to custody, which was 34% for BAME offenders and 33% for White offenders. The Lammy Review did find a difference when looking in more detail.
  • The ACSL was 27.1 months for BAME offenders and 19.5 months for White offenders.
  • ACSL has been rising in general in recent years but the rise has been steeper for BAME offenders. It rose by 4.9 months for White offenders and by 8.0 months for BAME offenders between 2009 and 2019.

A chart shows a steeper rise in average sentence length since 2009 for BAME offenders compared to White offenders.

The prison population

  • As of March 2020, 27% of the total prison population was BAME. In the female prison population (a small fraction of the total), the proportion from a BAME background was closer to the proportion in the general population, at 18%.
  • The rate of self-harm incidents in 2019 was much higher for White prisoners (91 incidents per 100 prisoners) than for any other ethnic group (25 per 100 for BAME prisoners overall and 18 per 100 for Black prisoners).

Re-offending

  • The overall adult reoffending rate in 2018/19 was 30% for White offenders, 31% for Black offenders, and 24% for Asian offenders.

Judges, magistrates and lawyers

  • In 2019, 6% of judges and 12% of magistrates identified as belonging to a BAME group.
  • Estimates suggest that 21% of lawyers working in law firms in 2019 were BAME: 15% were Asian, 3% Black, 2% mixed ethnicity, and 1% ‘other’.

Further reading

The Lammy Review (2017) and the accompanying Ministry of Justice analysis (PDF, 3,086kB) contains more detailed analysis of this topic using data from 2014 and 2015.

See the Library’s briefing on Race and Ethnic Disparities for further analysis of the most recent data.

The UK Government produces the following regular summaries: Race and the Criminal Justice System (last updated November 2019), Ethnicity Facts and Figures (last updated May 2019), and Tackling racial disparity in the criminal justice system (last updated February 2020).

The Runnymede Trust has published several reports on ethnicity and criminal justice, including ‘Criminal Justice v. Racial Justice: Minority ethnic overrepresentation in the criminal justice system’. See also the Prison Reform Trust’s research report, ‘Counted Out: Black, Asian and minority ethnic women in the criminal justice system’ (PDF 808kB) (2017).

Sources

Notes

  1. This data is for England and Wales.
  2. The prosecutions, convictions, and sentencing figures are for indictable and either-way offences only, i.e. they exclude summary offences, which typically do not involve a trial.
  3. The figures for remand, prosecutions, convictions, sentencing, ACSL, self-harm in custody are from 2019. Arrests and judicial diversity are from 2018/19. Proven reoffending related to the cohort convicted of a criminal offence at any point in 2017/18.
  4. The prison population is as on 31 March 2020.
  5. ‘Unknown’ or ‘not stated’ ethnicity values were removed for the calculation of percentages.
  6. The Ministry of Justice uses the 2001 Census ethnic group classification system. Note that Chinese is not included in Asian but in ‘Chinese and other’. White includes White British, White Irish, and ‘White Other’ which includes Gypsy and Irish Traveller.

About the authors: Georgina Sturge is a statistician at the House of Commons Library, specialising in justice and migration statistics. Baber Yasin was an intern is the Social and General Statistics section at the House of Commons Library in Summer 2020.

Image by Sang Hyun Cho from Pixabay