Joanna Veimou | July 20, 2020
This piece is my personal attempt to address a problem that I believe exists in the UK criminal justice system. I basically draw from my experience as a student at the Bar Professional Training Course, which is the program that qualifies you to practice as a barrister at the courts of England and Wales. During studying for the program, I decided to volunteer at an organisation with an admirable cause. The one I chose was a program through the Inns of Court, which paired current law students with prisons and youth offenders institutions via the teaching of debating.
Drawing from my experiences, I have noticed that, whether willingly or not, the people responsible for judging guilt, demonstrate or suffer from a form of racial bias; regardless of whether they are jury members or judges themselves. The current system allows for the consideration of external factors when it comes to sentencing, including the person’s personal circumstances or factors that contributed to his/her crime, something which is exceptionally positive and rarely found in the structure of justice systems around the world. However, I think the core problem is that people finding guilt are usually not allowed to see the whole picture of the defendant before the time of sentencing.
Why do I say that? It is common knowledge that judges in the Magistrates courts, where people arrested make their first appearance as well as get tried for minor crimes, are usually case tired and tend to side with the prosecution. This is also the reason why many defendants elect Crown Court trial if it is available to them (trial by jury). However, after various conversations I had with both criminal barristers and people that have been tried by jury, I heard the same feedback: ‘the jury sees me, being black and wearing grey sweatpants in the courtroom, along with two other co-defendants that look just like me, they already think I am guilty’. To my surprise, and possibly to the surprise of the reader, prisoners actually said they would rather be tried by judge, because they think they would be fairer in their process. But why is that? Even though it seems that in many aspects we are making good steps towards racial equality, there still seems to be a problem when it comes to defendants in the criminal justice system. My opinion is that this happens because there is a prejudice against people from a certain background that are accused for certain offences (i.e. affray, robbery, assault). There is the assumption that if they are here, meaning in court, then they must be guilty. I think that it is extremely contradicting for a system whose primary value is that the burden of proof is on the prosecution, meaning that the prosecution has to prove the defendant is guilty. It seems that, unofficially, the situation is reversed, and the defendant has to prove his/her innocence to the people determining whether he is guilty or not.
A difficult aspect of this problem is that there is no easy solution. We cannot get rid of juries, they are an essential aspect of our justice system and if we are honest I believe it is fair that a member of society is convicted by 12 of his/her peers which are randomly selected. So how do we eliminate the bias?
I was more than delighted to read about JUSTICE’s current working group on BAME disproportionality in the Youth Justice System. JUSTICE is an organisation focused on ensuring judicial accountability and equal access to justice. I think that is absolutely the correct approach in examining the issue. Having been inside a Youth Offender Institution, an institution that has made headlines for inmate violence and riots, as well as terrible custody conditions, I would say that the prejudice, even by reading seemingly innocent articles on the internet about the situation, is immense. The reader inadvertently forms the image that people there are cold hearted criminals, whereas the situation inside the building could not be more far than that. Granted, these people have committed crimes and they are, in most cases, rightfully in custody, but they do not stop being people and, taking into account their young age, able to develop and change into valuable members of society. Some of them have business skills and knowledge ability better than people that are not in custody.
Another incident that I would like to mention because I think it demonstrates a case where the public’s perception around race played a part in the delivery of justice is the story of a young black man that I met at the institution. A story that unfortunately is not unique. The man I met, was quiet during class and did not really seem to want to participate. At the end of the class, he was the last one to be taken out of the classroom and back to his cell and me, the other volunteer and their regular teacher were waiting with him. While we were waiting we talked with him for a bit and he just seemed like a regular young man, who was happy because he was getting out in eight weeks. When he left, the teacher told us that during a class, the boy jokingly said to them that he was famous, since his case had received significant media attention. He was convicted of threatening someone with a knife (affray), and there was video footage of it. The judge of the initial case, examining the circumstances of the crime, including the fact that the defendant had been kidnapped by a gang at a young age, found that a community sentence was appropriate. The young man would not have to serve a custodial sentence. A few weeks later, video footage of the crime surfaced on the internet, and caused outrage to the general public. The young man’s case was referred to the Old Bailey, under the ‘unduly lenient’ sentence scheme. The court sentenced the man to 4 years in custody. From 0, to 4 years.
The reason I mention this story is because I cannot help but wonder if the situation would be different had the race of the defendant been different. If the man in the video had been a white man, would outrage have been caused? Would his original sentence have been overturned? Why would the first judge think that a non-custodial sentence was appropriate upon examining the individual circumstances, but the second judge decided that this young man had to serve 4 years in a young offenders institution.? This case really shook me, because it made me realise how real these cases are. How real prejudice is and how it stands right in front of us. For context, in the year that the young offender saw his sentence increase (2018), prosecutors referred 140 cases under the ‘unduly lenient’ sentence scheme. Of those, 99 people saw their sentences increase.
During my time at the institution, I saw one single white person. And when asked what my students would change about the world, my students said, ‘racism’.
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