Please Mind the Gap


Whilst previous research exposes the disproportionate way in which those from black and minority ethnic groups (BME) are policed, little has been mentioned about how previous convictions shape the end result. This piece reveals how, by drawing upon our own research, we looked into not only the percentage of those who had a previous conviction that were proceeded against for possession offences, but what, if any affect this had upon their procedural outcome.

Having joined Release with a background in Social Policy, I have always been mindful of the inequalities those from marginalised social groups face throughout the British system. My time at Release, analysing the Metropolitan Police Service’s (MPS) stop and search data for drug offences however, has revealed the magnitude in which those from  BME groups are being disproportionally treated, at all stages of the criminal justice system.

Research has consistently shown that adults from BME groups use illegal drugs at a similar, if not lower rate than white people. This evidence is consistent with Government self-report studies, which reveal much lower rates of ‘last year’ drug use among adults in BME communities. Despite these findings, significant evidence is available to support the claim that there is a lack of correspondence between drug use trends and criminal justice proceedings.

The Release report, researched and published in partnership with the London School of Economics (LSE), on racial disparities in the policing and prosecution of drugs demonstrates the extent of the disproportionality that exists within our criminal justice system. Those from BME backgrounds are being searched at a rate of over six times that of their white counterparts, are being subjected to harsher sanctions and are being charged at a far higher rate. This national pattern correlates locally. Rates of disproportionality in London reflect those of the country as a whole, with the MPS carrying out drug searches at a rate of 34 per 1000 across the population as a whole, rising to 66 per 1000 for black people.

Racial imbalances are not isolated to initial police contact however, with those from BME communities receiving disproportionate sentences for possession of drugs.  The MPS figures for 2009/10 exhibit racial disparity at all stages of response: black people were charged at five times the rate of white people for cannabis possession - a figure that jumps to a rate of seven times that of their white counterpart for cocaine. Black people are therefore far more likely to be charged with the offence of possession than white people.

It was pronounced media coverage, which focused not only on Release’s report, but also on the issues of racial inequality within the criminal justice system more generally, that prompted us to analyse the total number of previous convictions. The percentage of those proceeded against for possession offences that held a previous conviction uncovered similar racial discrepancies. 40% of those from BME communities had been charged or warned before, compared with just 24% of white persons. Recognising that an increased frequency of stop and searches for black persons subsequently heightens their propensity for having a conviction, led us to factor this in to our analysis. Omitting any previous convictions from the data meant that the entire sample was at the same level within the criminal justice system. Despite this, 60% of black people were charged with possession of cocaine, in comparison with just 26% of those who were white. Whilst we acknowledge the caveat in being unable to ascertain whether a person has received a caution beforehand, due to the nature of the data set, it is clear that racial imbalances exist within the policing of drugs.

Overall, the policing and prosecution of drug offences is not being equally applied to all those who use drugs. Those from BME groups are more likely to get a criminal record than white people, are more likely to be taken to court and are more likely to be fined or imprisoned for drug offences because of the way in which they are policed. It is because of this that changes to UK drug policy are fundamental in order to bring about a fairer and more compassionate legal framework to manage drug use in our society.