Black and ethnic minority offenders convicted of supplying drugs are about one and a half times more likely to be immediately jailed than their white counterparts, research has found.
Analysis commissioned by the Sentencing Council has resulted in changes to the guidelines given to judges and magistrates, which aim to combat ethnic disparity.
It found that “different sentencing outcomes” were observed for different races, even when the offences and other factors were the same.
“For Asian offenders and those in the “other” ethnic group, the odds of receiving an immediate custodial sentence for the three drug [supply] offences were 1.5 times the size of the odds for white offenders,” said a report published on Wednesday.
“The odds of a black offender receiving an immediate custodial sentence were 1.4 times the size of the odds for a white offender.”
As part of a wider package of new guidelines for drug offences, the Sentencing Council said it has taken measures to address the gap, including drawing judges’ and magistrates’ attention to “evidence of sentencing disparities in specific offences”.
It has also introduced a passage saying that the demonstration of remorse, which can be used to mitigate someone’s sentence, should not depend on someone’s “demeanour in court”.
The Equal charity, which campaigns for racial equality in the criminal justice system, had told the Sentencing Council that the appearance of remorse was subjective and that “young black men involved in gang/street culture are taught that public displays of emotion show weakness, making it difficult to display it in a legal setting”.
“The Council is committed to investigating apparent disparity in sentencing outcomes further,” a spokesperson for the Sentencing Council said.
“As part of this work the Council has convened an internal working group to consider what further steps might be taken in this area and is in the process of commissioning a review of how its guidelines operate to help identify any areas for further work.”
Shadae Cazeau, the head of policy at Equal, welcomed the changes but said there was “a long way to go to reduce racial disparities across the criminal justice system”, adding: “We would welcome future research by the Sentencing Council and other criminal justice departments to understand whether other offences also pose the same risks for black, Asian and minority ethnic groups and Muslims.”
The Prison Reform Trust said the guidelines were “unlikely to be enough” on their own and that discrimination persisted from proscution through to prison and resettlement.
Mark Day, the group’s head of policy, added: “Unless attention is given across the criminal justice system to addressing these disparities, people from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups will continue to experience worse outcomes than their white counterparts.”
Release, which conducts research and campaigns on drugs law, said drug offences were a “huge driver for racial disparities in the criminal justice system”.
“Real reforms will not be achieved without an overhaul of our drug laws and a move towards decriminalisation and regulation of the drugs market,” said executive director Niamh Eastwood.
“Racial disparities exist from drug stop and searches, through to arrests, decisions to prosecute and sentencing, yet across the world we are seeing reforms which recognise that tinkering with the system is not enough, rather we must end the criminalisation of people who use drugs and support people currently involved in the illicit market to transition to licit alternatives.“
The revised sentencing guidelines aim to reflect a change in the nature of offending and the rise of psychoactive substances, formerly known as “legal highs”.
Changes include a rise in the exploitation of vulnerable people as part of “county lines” dealing models, an increase in drug purity and new drugs in the market.
The new guidelines introduce aggravating factors that could increase sentences for offenders who use the home of a vulnerable person, exploit children or run county lines to send drugs from urban centres to small towns and rural areas.
Judge Rebecca Crane, a member of the Sentencing Council, said: “Drug dealing is a serious crime, and the effects cut across all groups of people: from addicts whose lives can be destroyed, to their families and the community, to people forced to take part in the trade either through coercion or threats, some of whom are young and vulnerable.
“These new sentencing guidelines provide a clear sentencing framework for the courts. They cover all the main offences and provide an approach to sentencing offending involving any type of drug. They will ensure that victims, witnesses and the public will have clear information on how drug offences are sentenced.
“The Council has also taken this opportunity to include measures to address disparities that exist in the sentence outcomes of some drug offences associated with ethnicity. This is an important area of work for the Council and we continue to explore whether any further changes could be beneficial to guidelines to help address any disparities in sentencing outcomes.”
The courts minister, Chris Philp, said the guidelines would ensure that sentences “reflect the severity of crimes” linked to drug production and distribution.
He added: “The government is also investing £148m to cut drug-related crime – dismantling gangs while funding more treatment programmes to stop the cycle of reoffending.”