You don’t have to look far to see how recent events have brought the issue of racial inequality in the criminal justice system to the fore. The Black Lives Matter movement has brought the issue of institutional racism to the forefront of public consciousness, sparking conversations and inspiring communities to take action to confront this inequality head on. This change must be reflected in teaching resources, and many textbooks in the field of criminology will be updated with statistics, press clippings and quotes from figures responsible for reform in this field.
Yet the increased attention and discussion around racial inequality since the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 has shown that it is the human stories that have the greatest impact.
The Oxford Handbook of Criminology includes hard-hitting statistics, news snippets and the latest stock market, but it also goes deeper. Through the inclusion of numerous “Conversations” boxes, the book incorporates the voices and experiences of people we all need to hear, bringing statistics and theoretical academic discussions to life.
This blog post includes excerpts from just three conversations on the themes of racism and justice.
Gang members? call us humans
“My first gang was my family. This gang met all my main needs, so it should have been a space where I could feel safe and thrive. However, family support could not make up for the fact that I felt abandoned by the system and excluded from society.
“I joined a ‘real’ gang when I was 14 for my own safety and to feel more important. Yes, it was partly to boost my fragile and immature male ego, but it only needed boosting because I felt left out and aimless.
“A memory that will remain etched in my memory is when I was stopped and searched on Edgware Road, a stone’s throw from my home. I offered no resistance, but the officers still felt the need to press my face against the cold, wet concrete slab, several knees pressed against my body. It was just because I fit the description of someone they were looking for, and it happened in front of my mom – I had gone to help her with her groceries.
“This is just one example, and I have been through many similar unjust events, but I have never forgotten the humiliation and anger I felt towards these white police officers. The situation deepened my hatred for the police and anything to do with the law as yet again I was a victim of autocratic behavior by the police and received no apologies. It was just a “routine check”, in the words of the officer.
“We have to remember that everyone is a human. Gang members are just people looking for a sense of belonging in a society that constantly excludes them. If we aspire to humanity, instead of creating divisions and amplifying a way of life that is especially harmful to young people, we can offer support and guidance to those who need it most.
Excerpt from Conversations 9.1 with Omar Sharifformer gang member and now trainer, mentor and speaker, and Prince’s Trust award winner.
The police Where the police department?
“I was stopped and searched seven times by the police. The first time, I was 14 years old, wearing my school uniform and walking home with a group of friends. The police stopped and searched me and my black friends for weapons while my white friends looked on.
“On another occasion, I was going to work and was spotted on a busy train platform. I was told I was wanted for drugs. While I was being searched, the officers allowed their sniffer dog to place its paws all over my suit. Imagine having to explain to your co-workers why you were late and why you were covered in paw prints. . . It seems that neither the innocence of a school uniform nor the professionalism of a costume is enough to protect you from racial profiling by the police.
“Statistics continue to show the presence of racial profiling, which is problematic when the police are the main entry point into the criminal justice system. These types of police practices go some way to explaining why we see a disproportionate number of ethnic minorities within the criminal justice system.
“When I last met the police, they searched me at gunpoint. [because] they said they had reason to believe I had a gun in my possession. In my bag, instead of finding a gun, they found law books.
“It seems that neither the innocence of a school uniform nor the professionalism of a costume is enough to protect you from racial profiling by the police.”
“It was as if the officers had decided I was a problem and were trying to create a fitting narrative. I had done nothing wrong, I had cooperated, and yet they had done their best to put me in a situation that could have devastated my career. Luckily they didn’t succeed and I’m a lawyer now.
Excerpt from Conversations 10.2 with Leon-Nathan Lynchsolicitor at 25 Bedford Row, London.
CPS Efforts to Address Institutional Racism
“I joined the CPS [Crown Prosecution Service] as an administrative officer in 1988, shortly after its establishment in 1985. The 1990s were a difficult time for race relations in the UK. It was as if there was little social or criminal justice for black African, Caribbean or Asian communities.
“My personal experiences working for CPS at the time were not particularly positive. During this period, I experienced many negative behaviors from managers and colleagues, which I was unable to articulate as “racism” at the time; it was just ‘the way things were’. As a black woman and primary caregiver, I was excluded in more ways than one.
“The Equality Act came into force in 2000, and in light of the new legal obligations and the issues previously raised, the CPS invited Sylvia Denman QC OBE to investigate racial equality in the service. His report revealed that the CPS was institutionally racist and that this had wide-ranging repercussions both in the treatment of staff and in the approach to criminal cases.
“To the CPS’s credit, senior leaders responded quickly and in less than three years went beyond the report’s recommendations. For example, the Denman review highlighted the mistreatment of black, Asian and minority ethnic staff across the service. The management team at the time said they were unaware of what was going on. The report therefore recommended that the CPS establish a network for these employees to give them direct access to key decision makers. In 2001, the National Black Crown Prosecution Association (NBCPA), the first CPS personnel network, was born.
“In 2020, the NBCPA is now one of eight CPS employee networks, spanning a wide range of interests including race, religion, disability and, most recently, social mobility. . . we not only seek to promote equality and diversity within the CPS, but also more broadly in the criminal justice system. We act as an essential friend of CPS. We work closely with the HR team to develop training programs and events to support the progression and development of Black, Asian and ethnic minority staff and to educate all CPS staff on the realities of structural racism. and intersectionality in the UK today.
Excerpt from Conversations 24.1 with Grace Moronfolu MBEpresident of the National Black Crown Prosecution Association (NBCPA).
The voices featured in The Oxford Handbook of Criminology reveal many different perspectives on how race intersects with crime and the criminal justice system. However, there is an obvious common thread: while it may now manifest in subtle ways, racial inequality continues to permeate society and the criminal justice system, from our streets to our courtrooms.
So how can we work for truly “just” justice? Theory, statistics and academic debate can help us understand the issues and develop potential solutions, but the events of summer 2020 have shown that it is lived experiences that engage, mobilize and ultimately trigger change.