David Lammy has called on HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) to set new public targets for increasing the proportion of black and minority ethnic staff it employs, with a particular focus on increasing representation in leadership roles.
The demand comes as part of the Tottenham MP’s long-awaited review into the treatment of BAME people in the criminal justice system, which was commissioned by then-prime minister David Cameron in January 2016.
Lammy said that while BAME people made up just 14% of the UK population, 25% of prisoners were from BAME backgrounds, a figure that rose to 40% for young offenders in custody. According to the review – conducted with the support of the Ministry of Justice – just 6% of prison officers are from BAME backgrounds, a situation Lammy said “only serves to accentuate the divide between those who enforce the rules and those who must comply with them”.
The review, tasked with investigating evidence of bias against black defendants and other ethnic minorities, found that BAME defendants are more likely to go to prison for certain types of crime than defendants from other backgrounds. It also found that black defendants were disproportionately more likely to plead not guilty to offences at crown court, possibly out of a reduced trust in the criminal justice system but which leads to longer sentences faced on conviction.
Lammy produced a total of 35 recommendations for reforming the criminal justice system – with one area of focus being more rigorous and transparent collection of data on the ethnicity and religion of offenders, so treatment and outcomes can be examined in more detail in the future.
The review says that if criminal-justice system agencies cannot provide an evidence-based explanation for apparent disparities between ethnic groups, then reforms should be introduced to address those disparities. This “explain or reform” ethos applies to every intervention.
On HMPPS staffing, Lammy said that the government’s target of recruiting 2,500 new prison officers provided it with a “unique opportunity” to deliver a workforce that better reflected the UK population as a whole, in a way targets in use by the army and the police were attempting.
“Given the evidence suggesting that the prison system is an attractive employer for BAME communities, prisons should be expected to recruit in similar proportions to the country as a whole from now on,” he said.
“Leaders of prisons with diverse prisoner populations should be held particularly responsible for achieving this when their performance is evaluated.”
Lammy said it was “deeply unhealthy” for the prison service to have so few BAME staff in positions of power.
“The prison service should also set public targets for moving a cadre of BAME staff through into leadership positions over the next five years,” he said.
“This should sit alongside performance indicators for prisons that aim for equality of outcome for BAME and white prisoners.”
The review also urged ministers to set a “clear, national target to achieve a representative judiciary and magistracy by 2025”, and then give parliament a biennial progress report. It said that 7% of court judges and 11% of magistrates currently come from BAME backgrounds.
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said the government needed to take Lammy’s review seriously and commit to ending the drivers towards disproportional treatment that it identified.
She said the data-led “explain or reform” principle proposed would be vital for shaping the way agencies improved the way they operated.
“We need transparent information about racial disparities and every agency must interrogate its practices where such disparities exist,” she said.
“Where figures are available, worrying trends emerge. The Howard League’s work on additional days of imprisonment shows that BAME prisoners are more likely to be punished with additional days.
“BAME people made up approximately a quarter of the prison population in 2016, yet received a third of the additional days handed down in external adjudications. We are yet to hear either an explanation or suggestions for reform from the Ministry of Justice on this issue and would welcome the Lammy principle being put into effect.”