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BAME women and the criminal justice system


Agenda, Women in Prison, research report, BAME women, criminal justice system, 'double disadvantage'Prejudices and subconscious ethnic or racial bias can ‘affect jury assumptions and sentencing decisions’.

Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women face a “double disadvantage” in the criminal justice system, according a report published earlier this year.

The report, based on focus group interviews with women in prison and in the community was undertaken to help inform the Lammy Review into racial bias in the criminal justice system.

It draws on the findings from three focus groups facilitated by Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk, and Women in Prison, a national charity providing specialist support services for women by women, in September and October 2016.

And BAME women told researchers from Agenda and Women in Prison that they felt discriminated against both in court and in prison.

The aim of the research for this report was to better understand the experiences of BAME women within the criminal justice system.

It was commissioned to feed into the Lammy Review, which is chaired by David Lammy MP, and is an independent review of the treatment of, and outcomes for, BAME individuals in the criminal justice system.

It is well established that there are fundamental differences between the way men and women in the criminal justice system are sentenced, and their needs when imprisoned.

One well-known publication about this is The Corston Report: A review of women with particular vulnerabilities in the criminal justice system, which established the need for “a distinct, radically different, visibly-led, strategic, proportionate, holistic, women-centred, integrated approach” for women in the criminal justice system, and also highlighted that BAME women were “a minority within a minority” in the system.

Regarding the prison population and sentencing, 18 per cent of female prisoners are BAME, compared to 14 per cent of the general population.

Within this, some groups of women are particularly overrepresented, most notably Black or Black British women who make up 8.8 per cent of female prisoners, compared to 3.3 per cent of the general population.

Both gender and ethnicity have an impact on sentencing decisions and outcomes. For example, women tend on average to serve shorter prison sentences than men because they have committed less serious offences. But 26 per cent of all women in prison have no previous convictions, compared to 12 per cent of men.

Women are also more likely than men to be remanded in custody and then not receive a custodial sentence.

Less than half of the women remanded by magistrates’ courts and subsequently found guilty receive a prison sentence.

And then Ministry of Justice analysis showed that black women are about 25 per cent more likely than white women to be sentenced to custody at crown court level.

Disproportional outcomes are particularly noticeable for certain offences. For example, for every 100 white women sentenced to custody at crown courts for drug offences, 227 black women received custodial sentences.

Four key themes emerged in all three focus groups: that women did not feel their voices and stories had been heard in court proceedings and were confused over process; that women felt that prejudices and subconscious ethnic or racial bias can affect jury assumptions and sentencing decisions; that the impact of their sentences on their family is extensive and far-reaching; and language and lack of translators can be a significant barrier throughout a woman’s experience of the criminal justice system if they do not speak English fluently.

Women also raised the far-reaching impact that their involvement with the criminal justice system was having on their families, in particular their children and also elderly relatives for whom they had caring responsibilities, and discussed the ‘ripple effect’ of their imprisonment on their whole family.

Many women, from different ethnic groups, spoke about the stigma they faced in their community for being a BAME woman in prison; many women felt that, in their communities, it was a greater source of shame and stigma for a woman to be in prison than a man.

Agenda and Women in Prison are calling for a focus on the distinct experiences of BAME women in the criminal justice system; and for a reduction in the use of remand and custodial sentences and a greater emphasis on community based support for BAME women instead.

They are calling for racism to be stamped out in prisons, and efforts to be made to recruit staff who reflect the gender and ethnicity of those they work with.

Katharine Sacks-Jones, director of Agenda, said: “BAME women face a double disadvantage; discriminated against because of both their gender and ethnicity.

“Sexism, racism or unconscious bias should have no part in the criminal justice system.

“That is why it is imperative that steps are taken to ensure fairness throughout the process.”

To read the full report, click here.

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