STOP AND SEARCH DRIVING INEQUALITIES IN THE CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM: Consultation response from Release based on the recent report from Release and London School of Economics and Political Science

In 2010 almost 17,000 drug searches were carried out by the Metropolitan Police Service (‘MPS’) in respect of children aged 15 years or younger, with 550 of these searches targeted at those under the age of 12.

Today the Home Office consultation on stop and search comes to an end and over the coming months the Home Secretary will have to decide how she will improve police practices in this controversial area. As part of the consultation process Release submitted evidence based on the recent report by the organisation and LSE ‘The Numbers in Black and White: Ethnic Disparities in the Policing and Prosecution of Drug Offences’.

Of particular concern was the number of young people coming into contact with the police through stop and search. The data collected by LSE and Release showed that in 2010 the Metropolitan Police Service (‘MPS’) carried out nearly 280,000 stop and searches for drugs in London, half of which were carried out on people aged 21 and under. As highlighted in the consultation response the lack of safeguarding for young people subject to stop and search is astonishing - both the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and the MPS state that police officers should be sensitive to the needs of young people, but there is no discussion as to how this is achieved or how stop and search can negatively impact on young people.

The response also highlights that drug searches are responsible for over 50% of all stop and searches, with knives and guns responsible for only 11% of all searches[i]. The police in England and Wales stop and search someone for drugs every 58 seconds, yet the arrest rate for drug searches is 7%. In the last five years there has been a significant increase in stop and searches and this has been primarily driven by searches for low level cannabis offences leading to a marked increase in prosecutions for such offences.

LSE and Release also highlighted that the racial inequalities within the criminal justice system are being driven by the policing of drugs with black people over 6 times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs than white people, whilst Asian people were 2.5 times more likely to be stopped and searched[ii]. This is despite the fact that drug use is lower amongst black and Asian people when compared to their white counterparts. Mike Shiner, co-author of the report, stated that ‘Racial disproportionality in the criminal justice is being driven by stop and search and more specifically stop and search for drugs, primarily small quantities of cannabis. The Home Office needs to address the role policing of drug possession has in broader concerns about fairness in the criminal justice system’.

Niamh Eastwood, Executive Director of Release, stated that ‘The use of stop and search by police is out of control and it is the use of drugs legislation which is driving this. Significant numbers of young people, especially those from black and ethnic communities, are being subjected to high levels of searches for drugs. This is damaging for them as individuals, their communities and the police where trust and confidence in the force is undermined. If the Home Secretary is serious about addressing the scale and impact of stop and search she will have to address the policing of drugs - we believe the only way to do this is by decriminalising possession’.


Notes to editors:

1. Release is the national centre of expertise on drugs and drugs law, providing expert advice to the public.

2. The Mannheim Centre for Criminology was set up at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in November 1990, and is named in honour of Hermann Mannheim. It is a multidisciplinary centre incorporating staff from across the School.

3. Report attached.

4. Decriminalisation is the application of civil sanctions for drug possession or a decision by the State or police not enforce the criminal laws in relation to the possession and/or use of drugs.

Press Enquiries:

Niamh Eastwood – 07900 002632/

Rupert George – 07767 768959/

Kirstie Douse – 07793 221039/

The authors of the report will be available for interviews and comments.

The report is available here and the main points from the Executive Summary are detailed below:

  • Over 50% of stop and searches are for drugs, 10% are for offensive weapons and less than 1% are for guns.
  • The police in England and Wales stop and search someone for drugs every 58 seconds.
  • Of the more than half million stop and searches for drugs carried out in 2009/10 only 7% resulted in arrest.
  • In 2009/10 there were 10 stop and searches for drugs for every 1,000 people in England and Wales.  Black people were stopped and searched for drugs at 6.3 times the rate of white people, while Asian people were stopped and searched for drugs at 2.5 times the rate, and those identifying as mixed race were stopped and searched for drugs at twice the rate of white people. This is despite the fact that drug use is lower amongst black and Asian people when compared to their white counterparts.
  • Black people are arrested for a drugs offence at 6 times the rate of white people, and Asian people are arrested at almost twice the rate of the white population.
  • Black people are more likely to receive a harsher police response for possession of drugs. In 2009/10 78% of black people caught in possession of cocaine by the Metropolitan Police were charged for this offence and only 22% received cautions. In comparison 44% of white people were charged for the same offence and 56% received cautions[iii].
  • Black people caught in possession of cannabis by the Metropolitan Police are less likely to receive a cannabis warning than white people, and are charged at 5 times the rate of whites.
  • Prosecutions for drug possession are at an all-time high and this is primarily being driven by cannabis possession. In 2010, the Crown Prosecution Service brought more prosecutions for possession of drugs than in any other year since the introduction of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 - 43,406 people were found guilty of drug possession. 60% of these prosecutions were for cannabis.
  • Black people are subject to court proceedings for drug possession offences at 4.5 times the rate of whites, are found guilty of this offence at 4.5 times the rate, and are subject to immediate custody at 5 times the rate of white people.  
  • Once they have been taken to court black people are less likely to be given a suspended prison sentence for drug offences than white people.
  • Every year approximately 80,000 people in England and Wales are convicted or cautioned for possession of drugs.  In the 15 year period, 1996 to 2011, 1.2 million criminal records have been generated as a result of drug possession laws.   

[i] The Metropolitan Police carried out 348,237 reasonable suspicion stop and searches in the period June 2012 – May 2013. Of the total stop and searches carried out 189,236 were for drugs, 35,557 were for offensive weapons and 3112 were for guns.

[ii] For white people the rate was 7 per 1000, for mixed race people it was 14 per 1000, for Asians 18 per 1000 and for black people 45 per 1000. The most recent Crime Survey for England and Wales (2011/12) found that adults from most black and minority ethnic groups reported much lower rates of ‘last year’ drug use than their white counterpart’s.

[iii] Cautions can be issued by police for an offence; it still forms part of a criminal record but does not require a person to go to court. A person charged will have to go to court for the offence and therefore this is considered a harsher response.