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Black History Month 2021: Racism in the Criminal Justice System

In this blog, our head of volunteer engagement Kate reflects on the structural racism and inequalities in the UK criminal justice system, and how Sing Inside is positioning itself to work for positive change.

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The theme for Black History Month 2021 is ‘Proud to Be’, and there have been celebrations across all sectors honouring the often-unheralded accomplishments of Black Britons throughout our history. Catherine Ross, Black History Month Editor, wants this theme to give focus to celebration, ‘to inspire and share the pride people have in their heritage and culture’. Along with celebration must necessarily come acknowledgement and denunciation of Britain’s past of colonisation and slavery, and of the institutional and structural racism that remains embedded in British society today. The criminal justice system is one of the areas of society in which structural racism and racial inequalities are most forcefully present: individuals from racially minoritised backgrounds are overrepresented at every stage of the criminal justice process, from stop-and-search figures and arrest rates through to the prison population (Lammy, 2017):

27% of the prison population is from an ethnic minority group, compared to only 13% of the wider population (UK Prison Population Statistics, 2020, p. 11).
Over 40% of young people in custody are from BAME backgrounds (Lammy, 2017, p. 3).
People who identify as Black comprise only 3% of the general population but 13% of adult prisoners and 20% of children in custody (Lammy, 2017, p. 3).
Gypsies, Roma and Irish Travellers represent 0.1% of the population, but are estimated to account for 5% of male prisoners and 12% of children in Secure Training Centre.

The statistics above are just a few examples of the significant racial disproportionality at all stages of the criminal justice system. Structural racial inequalities have been found again and again in reports and research, which is one of the reasons it was so disappointing that the recent Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities Report (2021) failed to acknowledge this (see our statement on the race report here).

It is vital for us at Sing Inside to understand the scope of the problems within which we are situated. We are committed to becoming an anti-racist organisation:

  • we have reviewed our musical policies to ensure we teach music by a wider range of artists and in a more accessible way;

  • our senior team has undertaken anti-discrimination training with Strawberry Words;

  • we are improving our volunteer recruitment processes;

This work comes at a key moment for Sing Inside as we form our first three-year strategy, due to run from 2022-2025, and we are embedding anti-racism into our goals and future planning (read more about our efforts here). As part of this process, we have recently redrafted our statement of Values to emphasise more explicitly our anti-racist focus, and in these we write:

‘We will strive to use any power and influence we have through our work to pursue this goal. We want our workshops to set an example of the incredible power that genuinely inclusive and anti-racist ways of working can have.’

While we are a small part of a big system, we are determined that wherever we can make a difference we must be striving to do so, and always be ambitious and reflect on our practice. We have a responsibility as a charity working within this sector to ensure we are utilising our positionality within the wider criminal justice arena to bring about positive change.

The Lammy Review (2017) made 35 clear, achievable and measurable recommendations to the government and criminal justice agencies to reduce inequalities in the criminal justice system, and before this, the Macpherson review (1999) made 70 such recommendations. The majority of these recommendations remain unimplemented, and the government’s current proposals on sentencing, by its own assessment, will only make the problem worse (Dawson, 2021). At Sing Inside, we stand in solidarity with organisations and individuals who are working to implement these recommendations to reduce structural racial inequalities throughout the criminal justice system, including the Prison Reform Trust, EQUAL, and the Runnymede Trust. We are only one small part of the picture, and we firmly believe that we will not have a fair and equal criminal justice system if the government and other changemakers do not commit to profound structural changes: this is the only way that racial inequality can be fully eradicated.

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