Black defendants spend on average more than 70% longer in prison awaiting trial and sentencing in England and Wales than their white counterparts, according to new data revealing racial disparities at the heart of the criminal justice system.
Figures obtained by the Guardian and Liberty Investigates through the Freedom of Information Act show the mean number of days spent on remand by black prisoners last year was 302 – compared with 177 days for white remand prisoners.
Defendants of all minority ethnic backgrounds spend considerably longer on remand than white defendants in prisons in England and Wales, according to the Ministry of Justice data.
In 2022, mixed-race prisoners spent an average of 272 days on remand, while Asian prisoners were held for an average of 262 days.
Last year the Guardian and Liberty Investigates revealed that a disproportionate number of people held on remand are black or of a minority ethnicity – and the extent of this disparity has been rising.
People from minority ethnic backgrounds make up about 18% of the population of England and Wales, according to 2021 census data, but 34% of remand prisoners whose ethnicity was recorded, up from 29% in 2015.
While black people are more likely to be held in prison to await their trials and sentencing, and for longer periods, research suggests they are also far more likely to be acquitted than white defendants after their time on remand.
Criminal justice NGO Fair Trials found that of 3,478 black people remanded in custody in 2021, 14% were acquitted at trial. In the same year, 17,538 white people were remanded in custody, but only 8% of these were subsequently acquitted.
Griff Ferris, the senior legal and policy officer at Fair Trials, said: “These latest shocking figures lay bare the racism and injustice hard-wired into the criminal justice system. Black defendants are again being treated significantly worse than white defendants, and held in prison awaiting trial.
“This is despite the government’s own figures showing that black defendants are more likely to be acquitted at trial, as well as more likely to not be sent to prison after being held on remand.”
The newly released data also shows a lengthening in the periods prisoners of any ethnicity are being held on remand, as the justice system struggles to deal with court backlogs from the pandemic. In 2015, the mean number of days spent on remand for all prisoners was 128, but it now stands at 207.
Court delays have also contributed to an overall rise in the remand population. According to official statistics, there were 14,591 people held on remand at the end of March – up from fewer than 10,000 before the pandemic. According to a MoJ spokesperson, by late 2022 it was the highest it had been for 50 years.
The percentage difference in the amount of time spent on remand by black prisoners compared with white has more than doubled since 2015, rising from a 33% disparity to 71%.
While the remand population swelled, conditions in prisons significantly worsened during the pandemic. His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons found in a 2021 report that efforts to contain Covid-19 had “come at a heavy cost to prisoners”.
“Carl”, a 28-year-old black British man who asked not to be identified by his real name, spent 10 months in prison awaiting trial for a charge of aggravated burglary. He was acquitted and released in early 2021.
He recalled his surprise at being arrested while working a shift as a delivery driver, then told he would not be going home before his case could be heard.
“I knew I was innocent,” he said. “I thought I’d be released under investigation. When they told me I was being remanded, I was just like, how? I was confused – you can’t really process it.”
Much of Carl’s time in prison was under lockdown conditions. “We were spending 23-and-a-half hours in a cell, only coming out 30 minutes a day,” he said.
While awaiting trial, he missed the birth of his first child. “It ruined a lot for me,” he said. “Now I’m still trying to get things back in order. Playing catchup isn’t easy.”
Carl explained how he has struggled to adjust back to normal life after his release. “Trying to find that mental strength to keep persevering and push through isn’t always the easiest … Sometimes I feel like my mind’s exploding.”
A government spokesperson said: “Sentencing and remand decisions are made by the independent judiciary, but this government is going further than ever to tackle discrimination in the criminal justice system.
“This extensive work is ongoing and covers the entire process – from diverting ethnic minority youngsters away from criminality to new training to remove bias and increasing diversity in the judiciary.”
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