‘Troubling’ Race Disparity Is Found in U.K. Prosecution Decisions

Black people and those from other minority groups are significantly more likely to be prosecuted in England and Wales than white people who have been arrested on comparable charges, according to a major new study that the Crown Prosecution Service called “troubling.”

The study, which had been commissioned by the prosecution service itself, presents law enforcement authorities with official evidence of racial disparity in how they decide which cases to prosecute. The figures support what civil rights groups and ethnic minority residents have said for years: that Black people face disproportionately harsh treatment across the criminal justice system.

“These findings are troubling,” Max Hill, the head of the Crown Prosecution Service, said in a statement released with the report on Tuesday. “While we cannot yet identify what is driving these disparities, it is clear we must do further work to establish this as a matter of urgency.”

The Crown Prosecution Service, the public prosecutor for England and Wales, decides whether to charge people with serious offenses. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, different bodies are responsible for those decisions. The police are responsible for charging decisions in more minor crimes, which make up around two-thirds of all offenses.

The study, by the University of Leeds, examined almost 195,000 cases from 2018 to 2021 and found “significant” disparities in prosecutors’ charging decisions.

White British people were charged least often, with 69.9 percent of cases resulting in prosecution. Black people were charged 74.7 to 77.5 percent of the time. Biracial people of white and Black Caribbean descent were charged 81.3 percent of the time, the highest rate of any group.

Because the analysis compared people who were arrested on similar charges, the disparities cannot be explained by the supposition that certain groups are more likely to commit certain crimes.

Last November, an investigation by The New York Times found that Black defendants were three times as likely to be prosecuted for homicide under a legal tactic known as “joint enterprise,” predominantly used to target what the police say is gang crime.

The last government-commissioned report on racial bias in the criminal justice system, the 2017 Lammy Review, found no evidence of racial disparities in charging decisions.

It did, however, find widespread evidence of racial bias in other parts of the criminal justice system, which prompted the Crown Prosecution Service to take a more detailed look at its own work.

Racial disparities in Britain exist beyond its prosecution service. Black people are stopped and searched at a rate six times higher than white people are, and are arrested at a rate three times higher. Black people are also more likely to be given longer prison sentences.

And in January, a United Nations panel found that Britain was failing to address “structural, institutional and systemic racism” within its criminal justice system. The panel raised particular concerns about the use of joint enterprise and strip searches, and called for an immediate suspension on those practices.

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