Sociology: Ethnicity, Crime and Justice


Ethnicity and Criminalisation

There are three main sources of statistics on ethnicity and Criminalisation:

  1. Official statistics 

  2. Victim surveys

  3. Self-report studies

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Official statistics

These show ethnic differences in the likelihood of being involved in the criminal justice system (CJS)

  • For example, blacks are 7x more likely than whites to be stopped and searched, and 5x more likely to be in prison

However, victim surveys and self-report studies throw a more direct light on ethnicity and offending 

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Victim surveys

These ask individuals to say what crime they have been a victim of 

  • Sometimes they ask respondents to identify the ethnicity of the person who committed the crime against them. For example, in the case of ‘mugging’, balck people are significantly more likely to be identified as offenders  

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Victim surveys have limitations. They rely on victims’ memory. White victims tend to ‘over-identify’ black as offenders. They exclude crimes by businesses, so they tell us nothing about the ethnicity of corporate criminals

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Self-report studies

These ask individuals to disclose crimes they have committed

  • Graham and Bowling found that blacks and whites had almost identical rates of offending, whilst Asians had much lower rates 

  • Other self-report studies show similar patterns, discrediting the stereotype of blacks as being more likely than white to offend 

Overall, the evidence on ethnicity and offending in inconsistent. Official statistics and victim surveys indicate higher rates of offending by blacks, but self-report studies do not    

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Racism and the criminal justice system

There are ethnic differences at each stage of the criminal justice process. How far are they the result of racism within hr CJS? We need to look at the main stages of the process that an individual may go through

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Phillips and Bowling note that there have been many allegations of oppressive policing of minority communities, including:

  • Mass stop and search operations, paramilitary tactics, excessive surveillance, armed raids, police violence and death in custody, and a failure to respond effectively to racist violence 

  • They note that minorities are more likely to think they are ‘over-policed and under-protected’

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Stop and Search

  • Black people are 7x more likely to be stopped and searched than whites 

  • Asians are over 3x more likely to be stopped and searched than other people under the Terrorism Act 2000

  • Only a small proportion of stops result in an arrest

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Stop and Search: Patterns explained

  • Ethnic differences in offending The patterns may simply reflect the possibility that some ethnic groups are more likely to offend, and that police are acting on relevant information about a specific offence 

  • Police racism Alternatively, members of minority ethnic groups may be stopped more because of police racism. In high discretion stops, police act without specific information and are more likely to discriminate 

  • Demographic factors Ethnic minorities are over-represented in the groups most likely to be stopped regardless of their ethnicity, e.g. the young, unemployed and urban dwellers, so they get stopped more 

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Arrests and cautions

The arrest rate for black people is over 3 times the rate for whites. By contrast, once arrested, blacks and Asians are less likely than white people to receive a caution

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Prosecution and trial

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decides whether a case brought by the police should be prosecuted

  • The CPS is more likely to drop cases against minorities than against whites, and Black and Asian defendants are less likely to be found guilty than whites

  • When cases do go ahead, minorities are more likely to elect for a Crown Court trial by jury, rather than a magistrates’ court, perhaps due to mistrust of magistrates’ impartiality. However, Crown Courts can impose heavier sentences if convicted

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Sentencing and Prison

Jail sentences are given to a greater proportion of balck offenders than white or Asian offenders

  • Hood found that even when the seriousness of the offence and previous convictions are taken into account, black men were 5% more likely to be jailed 

  • Blacks are 5x more likely to be in prison than whites. Blacks and Asians are more likely to be serving longer sentences 

  • When awaiting trial, ethnic minorities are less likely to be granted bail

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Explaining ethnic differences in offending

Official statistics on the criminal justice process show differences between ethnic groups. There are two explanations of these differences: left realism and Neo-Marxism

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The debate between these views is partly about whether crime statistics represent facts or social constructs: do they represent real ethnic differences in the patterns of crime (as left realists argue), or are they just social constructs produced by racist labelling (as Neo-Marxists argue)?

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Left realism

Left realists Lea and Young argue that ethnic differences in the statistics reflect real differences in the levels of offending

  • They see crime as the product of relative deprivation, subculture and marginalisation 

  • Racism has led to the marginalisation and economic exclusion of ethnic minorities 

  • Media emphasis on consumerism also promotes relative deprivation by setting materialistic goals that many members of minority groups cannot reach by legitimate means because of disrimination 

Lea and Young recognise that racist policing often leads to the unjustified criminalisation of some members of minority groups 

  • However, even if the police do act in racist ways, Lea and Young argue that this is unlikely to account for the ethnic differences in the statistics

  • Similarly, police racism cannot explain the much higher conviction rates of blacks than of Asians: they would have to be selectively racist against blacks but not Asians to cause these differences 

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Left realism: Lea et al conclude that

  1. That statistics represent real differences in offending between ethnic groups 

  2. These are caused by differences in levels of relative deprivation and marginalisation 

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Neo-Marxism: balck crime as a construct

Neo-Marxists such as Gilroy and Hall et al reject the view that the statistics reflect reality. Rather, they are the outcome of a social construction process that stereotypes minorities as more criminal than whites

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Gilroy: the myth of balck criminality

Gilroy argues that the idea of black criminality is a myth created by racist stereotypes of African Caribbeans and Asians 

  • In reality, these groups are no more criminal than any other ethnic group 

  • But because the CJS acts on these racist stereotypes, minorities are criminalised and therefore appear in greater numbers in the official crime statistics 

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Gilroy: Crime a political resistance

Gilroy argues that ethnic minority crime is a form of political resistance against a racist society, and this resistance has its roots in earlier struggles against British imperialism

  • Most blacks and Asians in the UK originated in former British colonies, where their anti-colonial struggles taught them how to resist oppression, e.g.through riots and demonstrations

  • When they found themselves facing racism in Britain, they adopted the same forms of struggle to defend themselves, but their political struggle was criminalised by the British state 

Gilroy’s view is like that of critical criminology, which argues that much working-class is an act of resistance to capitalism 

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Lea and Young criticise Gilroy. first -generation immigrants were law-abiding; it’s unlikely they passed on a tradition of anti-colonial struggle. Most crime is intra-ethnic, not a struggle against racism. Gilroy wrongly romanticises street crime as revolutionary. Asian crime rates are similar to whites’. If Gilroy were right, then the police are only racist towards blacks and not Asians

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Hall et al: policing the crisis

Hall et al argue that the 1970s saw a moral panic over black ‘muggers’ that served the interests of capitalism in dealing with a crisis

  • Hall et al argue that the ruling class are normally able to rule society through consent 

  • But in times of crisis, this becomes more difficult. In the early 1970, British capitalism faced a crisis:high inflation, unemployment and widespread strikes 

  • The 1970s also saw a media-driven moral panic about the supposed growth of a ‘new’ crime- mugging- apparently committed bu black youth. In reality, according to Hall et al, there was no evidence of a significant increase in this crime 

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Hall et al: policing the crisis 2

  • The emergence of the moral panic about mugging as a ‘black’ crime at the same time as the crisis of capitalism was no coincidence. The myth of the young black mugger served as a scapegoat to distract attention from the true cause of society's problems such as unemployment- namely the capitalist crisis 

  • By presenting black youth as a threat to the fabric of society, the moral panic served to divide the working class on racial grounds and weaken opposition to capitalism, as well as winning popular consent for more authoritarian forms of rule that could be used to suppress opposition

  • However, Hall et al do not argue that black crime was only a product of media labelling. The crisis of capitalism was increasingly marginalising black youth through unemployment, and this drove some into petty crime to survive 

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More recent explanations

Sociologists have examined two other explanations for ethnic differences in crime rates:

  • Neighbourhood factors FitzGerald et al found street robberies were highest in very poor areas but where the people had contact with richer groups. Young blacks were more likely to live in these areas and to be poor, but poor whites in these areas were also more likely to commit street crime. Thus, ethnicity as such was not a cause 

  • Getting caught Sharp and Budd found black offenders were more likely than whites to have been arrested. This was because they committed crimes where victims could identify them (e.g. robbery), and had been excluded from school or associated with known criminals- factors that raised their visibility to police
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