Offenders from ethnic minorities in the UK are more likely than their white counterparts to be jailed for certain categories of crimes, according to an analysis of more than a million court records.
The study, carried out by the Guardian, found black offenders were 44 percent more likely than white offenders to be sentenced to prison for driving offenses, 38 percent more likely to be imprisoned for public disorder or possession of a weapon and 27 percent more likely for drugs possession.
Asian offenders were 41 percent more likely to be sent to prison for drugs offenses than their white counterparts and 19 percent more likely to go to jail for shoplifting.
The findings, which accord with a history of academic research into disparities, suggest wider variations in sentencing than in some previous studies and also show variation between courts.
Frances Done, chair of the Youth Justice Board, who is working with the Magistrates’ Association on disparities in sentencing, told the Guardian that she fears the “disproportionality appears to be getting worse.”
“As the numbers in [youth] custody have gone down, the proportion of those from black and ethnic backgrounds has gone up,” Done said. “We don’t get the view that this is about deliberate discrimination, but because of practices that have not been thought through.”
One cultural difference, Done said, is a “greater propensity for black young people not to plead guilty than white young people.”
Black youths consequently received longer sentences if eventually convicted because credit is given for early guilty pleas.
Differences in sentencing between ethnic groups have been a subject of academic debate for a while. Some explanations suggest offenders from different ethnic minorities commit more serious offenses in particular categories or have longer criminal histories; others speculate they could be indicative of prejudice in areas of the criminal justice system.
The Ministry of Justice for England and Wales this week released details of all 1.2 million sentences passed by English and Welsh courts between July last year and June this year, including information on the age and ethnicity of defendants, if available.
The Guardian used that information on offenses where ethnicity information was available — a huge sample of more then 596,000 individual judgements — to compare the outcomes for different ethnic groups.
The UK government’s official statistics in Race and the Criminal Justice System, published by the Ministry of Justice for England and Wales last month, revealed that for all indictable offenses last year, black offenders were 17 perecent more likely to receive immediate custodial offenses than white offenders.
Professor Mike Hough, of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Birkbeck College, said the latest statistics showed a possibility of discriminatory sentencing practices, but the statistics on their own did not prove it.