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Black people have become victims of 'war on drugs’

UNDER SCRUTINY: Black people are more likely to have a criminal record compared to white people arrested for similar offences

IN SOME of Britain’s prisons, the population is almost entirely black.

In fact, at every level of the criminal justice system – including stop and search, arrest, charges, convictions and sentencing – people of African and Caribbean heritage are disproportionately represented and more harshly treated.

A landmark study, published last Thursday (Aug 22), by the national organisation Release – experts in drugs policy and laws – and the London School of Economics (LSE), suggested that these minority groups are targeted by design rather than because of a predisposition to committing crime.

The revelation comes as no surprise given that the most recent prison population statistics reveal that black groups represent an overwhelming 13.2 per cent of the prison population, over the age of 15 although they make up just 2.8 per cent of the general population.

DISPARITIES

The study called The Numbers in Black and White: Ethnic disparities in the policing and prosecution of drug offences in England and Wales – which uses data from the Ministry of Justice and the Metropolitan Police – reveals the extent to which black and minority ethnic (BME) groups in the UK are unfairly targeted, particularly when it comes to drug offences.

It highlights evidence that even though black and Asian groups are less likely to use drugs, they are more likely to be stopped and searched by police officers. Drugs account for 50 per cent of all searches.

The report cites black people as being six times more likely to be stopped than white people, but a recent Home Office report, also published this year, estimates this disparity to be seven times more likely.

Niamh Eastwood, executive director at Release, said: “Black people are more likely to get a criminal record than white people, are more likely to be taken to court and are more likely to be fined or imprisoned for drug offences because of the way in which they are policed, rather than because they are more likely to use drugs.

“Despite calls for police reform of stop and search little has changed in the last three decades. This is why the Government needs to take action and change the law. Decriminalisation of drug possession offences would end the needless stop and search of hundreds of thousands of innocent people every year and eliminate a significant source of discrimination with all its damaging consequences.”

According to a 2011/12 crime survey, approximately nine per cent of white people, aged between 16 and 59, admitted to taking any kind of drug, compared to five per cent of black people. Just over seven per cent of white people took cannabis, compared to just over four per cent of black groups.

When it came to Class A drugs such as cocaine or heroin, just over three per cent of whites declared themselves drug users, compared to less than one per cent of black people.

CHARGED

For cannabis, black people are five times more likely to be charged, while white people are more likely to be let off with a caution. In 2009/10, 78 per cent of black people caught with cocaine were charged.

For white people, 44 per cent faced charges – just over half the number.

The picture is similar in the US, where African Americans are three times more likely to be arrested for drug offences and 10 times more likely to be imprisoned, leading to criticisms of the so-called ‘war on drugs’.

It is a topic explored in-depth by activist and law professor, Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

Michael Shiner, co-author of the report and a senior lecturer in the department of social policy at the London School of Economics, said: “It’s shocking that police officers are spending so much time targeting minor drug offences, rather than focusing on more serious matters. This is not the result of a carefully considered strategy, but is the unintended consequence of reforms that have created a perverse incentive structure, rewarding officers for going after easy pickings rather than doing good police work.”

INEQUALITY

The report concludes: “The inequality that exists throughout the criminal justice system demonstrates that many from the black community are subject to substantially different treatment than those from the white community.

“Not only does this disproportionately harm individuals policed and prosecuted for minor drug offences, but this potentially seriously impacts on the trust and confidence these communities will have in the police and the criminal justice system.”

Release also made three recommendations for improving drug policy in the UK, including policing strategies, charging practices, sentencing decision-making and government monitoring.

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