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Blog – Criminal justice, racial discrimination and criminal records

In this blog, Christopher Stacey shares some thoughts on the current Black Lives Matter protests, the criminal justice system, racial discrimination and the impact of criminal records.

The protests and debate following the killing of George Floyd should make organisations of all shapes and sizes reflect on how they make racial justice a key part of their work.

At Unlock we spend a lot of time thinking and talking about fairness for people who have been through the criminal justice system. We know that criminalisation holds people back from achieving their potential. And we know that the justice system doesn’t treat people of all races equally.

Research has shown time and again that people from some backgrounds are disproportionately represented at all stages of the criminal justice system. The term ‘BAME’ sometimes masks differences between groups and so we avoid using it where we can. People of black and other minority ethnic backgrounds are:

  1. More likely to be stopped and searched – Over the last 5 years, the proportion of suspects who were stopped and searched from white ethnic groups has decreased while the proportion of suspects across all minority ethnic groups has increased – from 13% to 22% for black groups, from 8% to 13% for Asian groups, from 3% to 4% for mixed ethnic groups and from 1% to 2% for Chinese or other groups.
  2. More likely to be arrested – Over the last 5 years, the proportion of white children arrested in London has decreased from 42% to 33%, while the proportion of black children arrested in London has increased from 34% to 42%,
  3. More likely to get a caution – Although the use of cautions is decreasing overall, the proportion accepted by black people in police custody has grown. In the 11 years to March 2019, the total number of youth cautions went down by 91% (from 93,656 to 8,552), and there was a decrease in every ethnic group. The percentage of cautions given to white children went down from 88.0% to 83.1%, while the percentage given to black children increased from 6.6% to 11.0%. A caution is a criminal record. It can prevent someone getting onto a teaching or medicine degree, or from getting a job in law, accountancy or government.
  4. More likely to be prosecuted – Black defendants have a much higher rate of prosecution, and therefore are at an increased likelihood of receiving a conviction.
  5. More likely to plead not guilty – Black defendants are consistently more likely to plead not guilty than white defendants. This means that, if found guilty, they are likely to face more punitive sentences than if they had admitted guilt. The result of this is a criminal record that will invariably end up having to be disclosed for longer under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (ROA) because the time it takes for the conviction to become spent will be longer.
  6. More likely to get a longer sentence – White people have had a consistently lower average custodial sentence length for indictable offences than all other ethnic groups since 2014. Black teenage boys are more likely to be charged with murder than manslaughter and more likely to receive a higher or maximum sentence than white boys. One in four black teenage boys guilty of manslaughter were given maximum jail terms, while white children found guilty of the same crime were sentenced to no more than 10 years, with the majority getting less than four. This particular statistic is striking within the context of the criminal records regime, where any sentence of more than 4 years in prison can never become spent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. More generally, longer sentences take longer to become spent (if they ever do), meaning a criminal record will cause more difficulties for longer. In other words, the white boys will have a better chance of moving on than the black boys convicted of the same crime.

We know the problems of a criminal record are compounded by discrimination for black people and people from some ethnic minorities. 75% of employers admit discriminating against applicants with a criminal record. Black and brown young people already face discrimination and a criminal record compounds that.

We can’t fix the justice system quickly. But we can try not to continue that discrimination after a sentence ends. That’s why we’re committed to pushing forward the recommendations that we made in Double discrimination? as part of our campaigning and advocacy work on reforming the criminal records regime.

It’s also why it’s important that we share this knowledge with the employers, organisations and universities that we work with, but we can always do more. We will step-up our efforts in challenging employers and others that have discriminatory attitudes towards people with criminal records, because we know this has a disproportionate impact on black and brown people.

And we must look much closer to home. In common with much of the charity sector, Unlock’s small team of staff and volunteers is comprised entirely of white people, which neither reflects society nor many of those we’re here to help. We will work to address this. We are watching, listening and learning, looking at how we can improve our support. And we will push harder for changes in policies and practices to challenge the disproportionate impact that the criminal records disclosure regime has on people from black and other minority ethnic backgrounds.


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Photo of Head of Advice, Debbie Sadler
Debbie Sadler
Head of Advice

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