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Thu 29 July 2021

A new report reveals how racially minoritised women endure longer sentences and a longer-term impact of imprisonment than their white peers, reports Sian Norris

The systemic racism and sexism endured by racially minoritised women in the criminal justice system has been laid bare in a new report – contradicting recent claims made by the Government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, chaired by Tony Sewell, that systemic racism is not a problem in the UK.

“When the Sewell Report says there is no systemic racism, I have to disagree,” said Ola – a formerly imprisoned black woman who spoke at the launch of the report by charity Working Chance. “I am a victim of it.”

Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy labelled the Sewell report “a disgrace”, which “absolves the Government of responsibility” for the barriers experienced by black and ethnic minority women in the criminal justice system. “It sets us back too far,” she added.

The new research reveals how black and ethnic minority women with criminal records find it harder to get back into work after being in prison. This is, in part, because “racially minoritised women are less likely to have access to social support and services, and more likely to be policed, arrested, and receive harsher punishments than white women, which means their criminal records last longer”, according to Olivia Dehnavi, research author and policy and research officer at Working Chance.


Systemic Racism in Justice

Population data from the Ministry of Justice found that 18% of the women’s prison population are from an ethnic minority group – compared to 14% of the general population. Black women make up 8.9% of the prison population, even though they are 3% of the general population.

But the issues experienced by black and ethnic minority women caught up in the criminal justice system start before they are sent to prison, according to Lashan. Speaking at the launch, she explained how racist attitudes make it harder for black women to access justice when they are victims of a crime – and more likely to receive harsher treatment having committed a crime. 

“It’s the way black women are viewed,” she said. “We are viewed as aggressors, we are never victims. We are always guilty, whereas white women are innocent until guilty.”

And while the Sewell report stated that “we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”, this was not Lashan’s or Ola’s experience. Working Chance found that racially minoritised women face discrimination and prejudice at every stage of the criminal justice system – discrimination that their white peers simply do not have to endure.

“It’s the structure of the systems,” said Ola. “It’s the institutions.”

Lashan, a survivor of domestic abuse, said that even when she was testifying in court as a victim, the police acted “as though I was the aggressor, I was an angry black girl”.

“Every step of the way, I have seen differences,” Ola added. 


Harsher Treatment, Harsher Barriers 

Racist attitudes start before women even make it to court, as evidenced by Lashan’s testimony. Once in the courtroom, racially minoritised people are more likely to receive custodial sentences, and receive longer average sentences, than white people. 

The average custodial sentence for a black woman is 14 months – compared to 11 months for white women. It is 16 months for women from other ethnicities including Chinese women, and 18 months for Asian women.

Black women are also 25% more likely than white women to be sentenced to custody at crown court. In the case of Ola, this was after being found guilty by a white jury, prosecuted by a white lawyer, and sentenced by a white judge. “It’s like you don’t have a single ally in the room,” she said. 

The racial disparity in sentencing has a long-term impact on everything from mental health and family breakdown, to employment opportunities. The longer the sentence, the longer an individual will show up on a criminal record check. This can have a negative impact on them starting work following imprisonment.

For Ola, whose criminal record is held for seven years, it has left her feeling “my sentence is 11 years at least”.

The 2017 Lammy Review found that, once women are in prison, racially minoritised women receive lower quality rehabilitative care, less support, fewer opportunities, and harsher punishments than their white peers.

“The cumulative effect is that racially minoritised women are more at risk than white women of long-term unemployment, reliance on benefits and being ruled out when they apply for jobs,” states the report.

Working Chance recommends that the Government undertake a review focusing on the treatment and disparities in outcomes for racially minoritised women in the criminal justice system.

This demand has become even more pressing after the Government’s announcement of creating 500 new women’s prison places – in contradiction to then then Justice Secretary David Gauke’s 2018 statement that “fewer women should be in jail”.

The report also criticises the failure of the Ministry of Justice to take an intersectional approach to data collection and asks for accurate, disaggregated data “that enables analysis by gender in combination with different ethnic groups and religions as variables”.

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