The unequal enforcement of drug laws is a source of profound racial injustice. While the U.S ‘war on drugs’ provides a particularly egregious example, differential patterns of enforcement have been identified across a range of jurisdictions. The Numbers in Black and White was published in 2013 by Release and showed how drug policing, particularly the use of stop and search, was driving ethnic disparities throughout the criminal justice system in England and Wales. What we present below updates and extends this earlier analysis, highlighting important areas of continuity and change. The policy context has changed dramatically, with central government paying much greater attention to ethnic disparities in criminal justice and the use of stop and search. Despite the avowed commitment to tackling discrimination, however, the underlying problem remains and, in some respects, has been magnified.
Striking ethnic disparities are identified throughout the process of drug law enforcement, with people from black and minority ethnic groups being over-represented from initial point of contact through to sentencing. Our analysis shows that policing remains central to this process, and that stop and search continues to play a key role despite striking reductions in the overall use of the powers. Reductions in stop and search have not been distributed evenly and residual activity has become more heavily concentrated on drugs, often for minor possession offences, and black and minority ethnic groups. Although all ethnic groups have experienced sharp reductions in the absolute number of stop-searches, the rate at which black people are disproportionately subject to such encounters relative to white people has increased. Disparities between ethnic groups have been compounded by the emergence of differential outcomes as black suspects are arrested as a result of stop and search at a higher rate than white suspects, but given out of court disposals at a lower rate. As well as identifying newly emerging trends, the analysis builds on earlier work by showing that the over-policing of black and minority ethnic communities cannot be fully explained by the concentration of law enforcement resources in deprived areas. It also shows how ethnic disparities introduced earlier in the process are perpetuated by sentencing decisions in court, producing outcomes that are startlingly unequal. While this confirms earlier findings we are able to show for the first time that enforcement activities around cannabis possession remain a key driver of disproportionality right through to prosecution and sentencing.
The Colour of Injustice: ‘Race’, drugs and law enforcement in England and Wales.
The evidence presented in this report provides an important corrective to the defensive rhetoric that has developed in response to the reform of stop and search. This rhetoric pivots around claims that police are afraid of using their stop and search powers in case they are accused of racism; that ethnic disparities are a ‘myth’; and that stop and search is a ‘vital tool’ in the fight against knife crime. None of these claims stand-up to empirical scrutiny. While police narratives about stop and search revolve around knives, gangs, organised crime groups, drug supply, county lines and modern slavery, our analysis tells a different story - one of deprived, minority communities being over-policed and selectively criminalised for minor drug possession offences that are largely ignored in other contexts and for other groups.