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Another race review of the criminal justice system?

In January 2016, the Prime Minister invited David Lammy MP to find out why official figures show that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups appear to be over-represented at most stages of the criminal justice system, and what can be done about it. The review will look at the way the criminal justice system deals with young people and adults from BAME backgrounds. It will address issues arising from the Crown Prosecution Service onwards, including the court system, prisons and young offender institutions and rehabilitation in the community. This is an independent review which enjoys bipartisan support. Earlier in the year, IARS attended a roundtable with the review team to raise a number of issues and we have now submitted further written evidence available here.

Open Letter to Mr. David Lammy MP by Dr. Theo Gavrielides, IARS Founder & Director

Thank you for the invitation to feed directly into your review of racial bias and the representation of Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities in the British criminal justice system. I was honoured by your invitation to attend your roundtable, and my Institute welcomes your work, which we understand enjoys bipartisan support. Further to the roundtable discussions, we are pleased to submit this formal response to the review. I am also happy to give oral evidence should you chose to hold further inquiries.

At the time of writing, the UK is trying to get to grips with the results of the EU Referendum. At the same time, our cities have been hit by unprecedented waves of hate incidents. Ignorance and misinformation once again have led selected groups to act shamefully when the British are known to the world for their tolerance, deep commitment to human rights, and their passion for education and knowledge. As a Greek Londoner myself, I fear for what is yet to come for my family, my international staff team, our volunteers and students, and myself. Hence, your review could not be more timely.

This submission is focused on issues that I believe will complement other statements while using evidence from our existing and past projects as an international research institute that is registered as a charity and has no political allegiances.

A word of warning as you conduct your review - having worked in the BAME sector as the Chief Executive of Race on the Agenda as well as through my own research on race, I have concluded that to truly have a debate on race, first there needs to be an acknowledgement that such a debate is needed. Are we truly ready to have this debate? I fear for yet another “ticking box” review, having observed the many inquiries that followed the Stephen Lawrence murder. Let me explain.

Many have argued that the ‘Trojan horses of race’ (Kang, 2005) make it difficult for the white decision-maker to overcome the implicit bias that is ingrained against racial minorities notwithstanding sincere self-reports to the contrary. This sub-conscious resistance is also experienced from non-white groups.

This submission assumes an acceptance of the term ‘race’ within a sociological understanding. This might indeed be a challenge for some who seem to be focused on a ‘Black’ interpretation of the term. In my view, focusing exclusively on Black communities does not fully reflect the impact of power structures that affect us all, and indeed on how society uses the term ‘race’ to refer to all those affected by such dynamics. (Let me be clear that specialist services and focused research and programmes must continue in order for practices and policies to be effective).

It is the power structures within our society and our criminal justice system that I want to bring to the attention of your review and race discussions more generally. I have launched a research programme[1] to this effect and a call for case studies has been released – see!racerj/c1kfd I would be happy to send you the results as these accumulate over the years. I would also urge you to review the findings of IARS's user-led programme on embedding race equality in probation.

Putting our emphasis on bringing balance to the power structures that racialise us all and cause pain, suffering and discrimination in public services (and the criminal justice system), we find alternative ways of delivering fairness. That is why for the last 15 years I have been a student of restorative justice, a concept and a practice that has been revived in the hope of bringing balance between the powerful state and the parties in conflict (victims and offenders). The restorative process demands power-sharing that is based on the premise that all parties in conflict are equal in the identification of harm, and in reaching an agreement for restitution (Gavrielides, 2014)[2].

Some argue that one of the reasons that restorative justice was brought back into the modern world of policy and practice is the growing disappointment in our criminal justice systems (e.g. Newburn and Crawford, 2002; Pavlich, 2005). These writings tend to quote the increasing incarceration rates, recidivism statistics, the rising costs of justice and the inability to protect the public from current and new forms of criminality. Over the last few years, we have seen an unprecedented interest by government in restorative justice. This interest is welcomed, but the policies and funding that have resulted from it are deeply concerning. I have provided evidence to this effect[3] expressing my view that the top down support that has been provided reproduces the power structures that the very notion of restorative justice was meant to address. Notwithstanding, restorative justice will continue to be delivered by communities with or without formal support. I ask that you look into the potential of these programmes as well as other user-led and user focused practices that are scrutinised by BAME individuals and their sector. In this submission I have included examples of user led practice focusing on probation. These are examples that we have identified while working in partnership with London Probation Trust aiming to shape a probation system that is informed and quality controlled by users including those from BAME backgrounds[4].

Relinquishing power within the current philosophy of adversarial justice and economics is in itself a challenge. Relinquishing power within a system that is challenged by the implicit biases and ‘Trojan horses of race’ is an even more complex matter. I acknowledge the difficult task that you are undertaking and thus, I wish you the very best in your endeavour. The IARS International Institute and myself are at your disposal should you require clarifications and further evidence. As a membership organisation we also aim to share this submission with our members and database subscribers. We would also be happy to share any response that you might have to what we have proposed.

Best wishes

Dr. Theo Gavrielides

IARS' Founder and Director | @TGavrielides |


[4] See Gavrielides, T. (2013). "Mind the Gap: Quality without Equality in Transforming Rehabilitation", British Journal of Community Justice, Vol 11 (2-3), pp. 135-149.

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