Drug policing drives racial disparity in the criminal justice system

Policemen. dagmarbendell CC0 creative commons

While the use of stop and search has fallen significantly, there has been a shocking increase in racial disparities in the policing and prosecution of drug offences according to a new report by Stopwatch, Release and LSE.

The report, The colour of justice: ‘Race’, drugs and law enforcement in England and Wales highlights that black people are now nine times more likely to be stopped and searched for drugs despite using drugs at a lower rate than white people. This is a marked increase on the 2010/11 figure when black people were six times more likely to be search for drugs.

Black people are now stopped and searched, for any reason, at more than eight times the rate of whites – a figure that has more than doubled since 1998/9 when the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry declared stop and search to be ‘institutionally racist’. In 2016/17, every police force in England and Wales stopped and searched black people at a higher rate than white people.

Across England and Wales, drugs searches account for 60 per cent of all stop and searches, and the vast majority are for simple possession. In some parts of the country the focus on drugs is much stronger. For example, 82 per cent of searches by Merseyside Police force in 2016/17 were for drugs.

Dr Michael Shiner, co-author of the report and associate professor in LSE’s Department of Social Policy, said: “For all the talk of knife-crime, gangs, and serious violence, the reality is that stop and search is still being used to over-police vulnerable communities for low level drug possession. While studies have repeatedly shown that stop and search has no impact on knife crime and serious violence, it selectively criminalises black people and those from other minority groups for offences that are largely ignored in other contexts. Whatever the intention might be, stop and search is a driver of discrimination”.

Dr Rebekah Delsol, co-author of the report, said: “More than four years after the Home Secretary declared that stop and search is unfair to young black men, it is shocking that the situation has got worse not better. The police are clearly unable or unwilling to deal with the problem and a solution needs to come from elsewhere. It is time for the Government to deliver on the promise of primary legislation. Forces that cannot use stop and search fairly and effectively should have the powers taken away from them until they can show that they can be trusted to use these powers appropriately.”

The report also highlights that black people are treated more harshly when they are found in possession of drugs. The detection rate from stop and search is similar for all ethnic groups, but black people are arrested at a higher rate than whites and given out of court disposals at a lower rate. Arrests for drugs as a result of stop and search fell by 52 per cent for white people between 2010/11 and 2016/17, but did not fall at all for black people.

Cannabis possession is driving much of the racial disparity in the prosecution and sentencing of drug offences. Black and Asian people were convicted of cannabis possession at 11.8 and 2.4 times the rate of white people respectively in 2017 despite their lower rates of self-reported cannabis use, providing prima facie evidence of discrimination. More black people were prosecuted for cannabis possession than supply of Class A or B substances combined – this was the reverse for white people. Black people made up a quarter of those convicted of cannabis possession even though they comprise less than four per cent of the population.

Zoe Carre, report co-author, stated: “Not only are black people being discriminated against in the use of stop and search but they are being prosecuted at a much higher rate than white people for possession offences, especially in relation to cannabis. This is an appalling indictment of the criminal justice system, which is acting as a conveyer belt for the criminalization of young black people for low level offending, whilst treating white people more leniently for the same offences.”

Niamh Eastwood, Executive Director of Release, said: “If Theresa May is serious about tackling racial disparity in the criminal justice system then she has to address drug law enforcement, which she has abjectly failed to do. As our report shows police forces in some parts of the country are implementing innovative diversion programmes for those caught in possession of drugs, this should be rolled out nationally to prevent the over-criminalisation of young black men.”