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Ethnicity and custodial sentencing
Muslim prisoner at HMP Wandsworth
The Sentencing Academy probes racial disparity in custodial sentencing over the last decade.

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A review of the trends 2009-2019

Yesterday (24 June 2021) the Sentencing Academy published a new report by Julian V. Roberts and Jonathan Bild examining what we know about racial disparity in custodial sentencing over the last decade (2009-2019 is the time period covered). The report ask two main questions:

  1. Are sentencing outcomes different for ethnic minority defendants?
  2. Which ethnic groups attract the harshest sentences?

Who are the Sentencing Academy?

The Sentencing Academy, which is funded by the Dawes Trust, is a research and engagement charitable incorporated organisation dedicated to developing expert and public understanding of sentencing in England and Wales. It encourages the Government to implement effective sentencing practices and informs public debate about sentencing, acting as a bridge between those with expert knowledge of sentencing, the public, and policy makers.

Key issues

The authors acknowledge that over the past 30 years a number of official reports have addressed the role of race and ethnicity in criminal justice decision-making but point out that, to date, no review or synthesis of these studies has been conducted. The Sentencing Academcy report explores sentencing patterns for different offender profiles. The focus is upon trends emerging from court statistics over the period 2009-2019. Two key issues emerge: ethnic disproportionality in criminal justice statistics and differential sentencing outcomes. Disproportionality is expressed by comparing the percentage of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals appearing at stages of the criminal justice system (e.g. arrest; charge; custodial admissions) to their proportion in the general population. Differential sentencing compares the outcomes for categories of offender. This report concentrates on sentencing outcomes, and more specifically, on custody rates and prison sentence lengths.

New prisoner on induction wing
© Andy Aitchison


Despite the accumulated research, the Sentencing Academy says that our knowledge of differential sentencing across ethnic groups remains imperfect. Many gaps exist in terms of the nature and extent of the problem. In particular, very little is known about any variations in outcomes in the magistrates’ courts. The report makes the important point that understanding the magnitude and nature of differential sentencing across all courts is vital to devising appropriate remedies.

Nevertheless, the report draws a number of preliminary conclusions:

  • Research on sentencing outcomes has used both third-party and self-reported ethnicity, although the most common approach uses self-identification. While differences in the manner of classification may affect statistical patterns, the general finding that BAME groups are associated with a greater use of imprisonment remains unaffected.
  • While visible minority offenders consistently attract higher custody rates than White offenders, the ordering of different groups varies from study to study. The most recent biennial Ministry of Justice report found that the categories ‘Chinese and other’ and ‘Asian’ attracted the highest custody rate (averaged over all offences).
  • Although group-based differences in custody rates and custodial sentence lengths are relatively modest, they are consistently statistically significant.
  • To date, research has focused on two measures of imprisonment: custody rates and average custodial sentence lengths. There is long-standing evidence of ethnicity-based differences using both measures.
  • An ‘Expected Custodial Sentence’ which combines both measures reveals that all BAME groups are associated with higher use of custody as a sanction, with Asian and then Black ethnic profiles attracting the highest imprisonment scores in 2019. Over the period 2009-2019, Black offenders attracted the most punitive imprisonment levels.
  • The differences between ethnic groups are striking for some offences, more modest for others, and absent for many categories of offending. Ethnicity-based differences have emerged most consistently and strongly for drug offences. This is the only category of offending that has been explored using the most detailed (yet time-limited) sentencing database (the Sentencing Council’s Crown Court Sentencing Survey).
  • Most studies published to date have been restricted to indictable offences in the Crown Court. Little is known about ethnicity-related sentencing differentials in the magistrates’ courts.


Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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