Ethnicity and Custodial Sentencing: June 2021

By Julian V. Roberts and Jonathan Bild
• Over the past 30 years a number of official reports have demonstrated differences in overall sentencing outcomes between different ethnic groups. However, many of these reports do not control for legallyrelevant case characteristics, such as previous criminal records and whether or not a guilty plea has been entered, which will have an impact on custody rates and sentence lengths. Ensuring that all legally-relevant factors have been taken into account when seeking to draw comparisons about outcomes between different ethnic groups is a key challenge for research in this area.
• In common with previous editions, the most recent Statistics on Race and the Criminal Justice System publication from the Ministry of Justice (published in 2019 using data from 2018) demonstrates that, for indictable offences, non-White ethnic groups had a higher custody rate and a longer average custodial sentence length.
• All published reports present the data on custody rates and on average custodial sentence lengths separately. In this report, we combine these two measures to form a new measure of punitivenessfor indictable offences: the ‘Expected Custodial Sentence’. This measure provides a more comprehensive measure of the use of imprisonment.
• Whilst the Expected Custodial Sentence increased for all ethnic groups throughout the period 2009- 2019, the figure for White offenders is consistently lower than for other ethnic groups. In 2019, the Expected Custodial Sentence for an indictable offence ranged between 6.6 months for a White offender and 10.2 months for an Asian offender. However, the overall Expected Custodial Sentence figure masks considerable variation across offence categories, with the greatest divergence evident for violent offences against the person.
• Despite the accumulated research, 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. Understanding the magnitude and nature of differential sentencing across all courts is vital to devising appropriate remedies.
Read the full report here