Criminals’ ethnicity must be taken into account when handing down sentences, experts say

Judges have been told they must take the ethnicity of gun criminals into account when they hand down punishments.

After research revealed that white criminals convicted of holding or carrying guns have been given lesser penalties than those from ethnic minorities, the Sentencing Council said judges must consider whether their decisions are influenced by their unconscious bias.

The council, a body led by judges, lays down guidance for the courts that judges and magistrates must follow. 

Its new instructions, to come into force at the start of next month, mark the first time that race will be a factor in the sentencing of the most serious criminals.

Research revealed that white criminals convicted of holding or carrying guns have been given lesser penalties than those from ethnic minorities (stock)

Research revealed that white criminals convicted of holding or carrying guns have been given lesser penalties than those from ethnic minorities (stock)

Research revealed that white criminals convicted of holding or carrying guns have been given lesser penalties than those from ethnic minorities (stock)

The rules have been imposed on judges in the first set of guidelines to cover gun crimes where the weapons are not actually used. 

The council said: ‘Sentencers should be aware that there is evidence of a disparity in sentence outcomes for this offence which indicates that a higher proportion of black and Asian offenders receive an immediate custodial sentence than white offenders and that for black and Asian offenders custodial sentence lengths have on average been longer than for white offenders.’

Appeal judge Lord Justice Holroyde, the chairman of the Sentencing Council, said: ‘The council has taken some measures in the guidelines to address apparent disparities in sentence outcomes based on ethnicity.

Judge Lord Justice Holroyde

Judge Lord Justice Holroyde

Judge Lord Justice Holroyde

‘This is an area that the Council is committed to continue to investigate and will take further action as and when there is evidence of effective measures that can be applied to guidelines.’ 

Judges are told that for all the gun crimes covered they should refer to the Equal Treatment Bench Book, advice on equality and diversity for judges which has regularly caused controversy over the past two decades.

The new Sentencing Council guidance says that while there may be many reasons why sentences for white and black gun criminals have shown disparity, they should consider several paragraphs in the Bench Book when they hand down punishments.

The paragraphs contain material from a review of the treatment of black and ethnic minority people in the criminal justice system carried out by Labour frontbencher David Lammy in 2016.

Mr Lammy, currently Shadow Justice Secretary, carried out the review for the Ministry of Justice.

In one selected passage from the Bench Book judges are told to consider that black and ethnic minority people are more likely to be arrested and more likely to be sent to jail than white people, but are not more likely than others to be charged with crime or convicted by a court.

It says: ‘This may be because those matters would be determined by rules of evidence and a degree of institutional oversight as opposed to subjective decisions by individuals which can be influenced by elements of unconscious racial bias.’

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