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Race, ethnicity and crime
Race, ethnicity and crime

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The US, Australia and the UK

The relationship between race and ethnicity and crime and criminology is characterised by conflict, dispute and contestation. The focus of explanatory concern for critical criminologists is the wider structural, cultural, political and historical contexts and divisions in which particular populations become associated with criminality and deviance and identified, labelled and pathologised as figures of menace, danger and threat. Understanding and challenging the ways in which this criminalisation leads to the over-policing, over-incarceration and under-protection of particular populations lie at the heart of critical criminological arguments.

The indication of a problematic relationship between race, ethnicity and crime can be seen in the race and ethnicity data across the core institutions (policing, judicial and penal systems) that make up the criminal justice system in most national contexts in the Global North. This data reveals the significant disproportion and over-representation of Black and minority ethnic (BME) populations in all negative or unfavourable categories; for example, stop-and-search, arrests, convictions, custodial sentencing. Three examples of the data in three different national settings are outlined below.

The United States

In his indictment of the race–crime relationship in the United States, Loic Waquant has argued that:

Three brute facts stand out and give a measure of the grotesquely disproportionate impact of mass incarceration of African-Americans. First the ethnic composition of the prison population in the United States has been virtually inverted in the last half century going from about 70 per cent (Anglo) White to less than 30 per cent today … Next, … the White-Black incarceration gap has grown rapidly in the past quarter-century, jumping from 1 [White] for 5 [Black] in 1985 to about 1 for 8 today … Lastly, the lifelong cumulative probability of ‘doing time’ in a state or federal penitentiary based on the imprisonment rates of the early 90s is 4 per cent for whites, 16 per cent for Latinos and a staggering 29 per cent for blacks.

(Waquant, 2002, p. 43)

In Australia, government figures and criminological research (e.g. Blagg, 2008) show that Aboriginal Australian populations are disproportionately represented in the country’s criminal justice and penal institutions. For example, while Aboriginal people make up only 2 per cent of the population of Australia, they represent 20 per cent of all prisoners. There are spatial and demographic clusters that show even more dramatic patterns of race disproportion: in Western Australia, 42 per cent of the adult prison population is Aboriginal. Furthermore, Aboriginal young people represent 4 per cent of the Western Australian population, yet make up around 80 per cent of all youths in detention (Hughes, 2009, p. 125). Policy interventions tend to remain focused on cultural explanations – that is, ‘the Aboriginal problem’ – for this over-representation. In this context, arrest and detention are most often viewed as first-resort tools for the maintenance of social order (Blagg, 2008).

The UK

In the UK, figures available from the Ministry of Justice for 2008/09 show that within the criminal justice system ‘substantial differences continue to exist in the experiences of people from BME groups compared with people from a White background’. It is worth looking at some examples taken from the report in a little more detail:

  • Trend data for 2004/05 to 2008/09 showed that, in England and Wales, the use of stop-and-search had increased each year in the last five years for every ethnic group. The greatest percentage rises were for the Black and Asian groups with increases of over 70 per cent.
  • In 2008/09, there were three times more arrests of Black people than of White people per 1000 population. Trend data shows that there was a 4 per cent increase in arrests of White people between 2004/05 and 2008/09, a 16 per cent increase for Black people, and a 26 per cent rise for Asian people.
  • In relation to courts and prisons the Ministry of Justice report also shows that a higher percentage of BME offenders were sentenced to immediate custody for indictable offences in 2008 than offenders from a White ethnic background. Research indicated that people from BME backgrounds are more likely to plead not guilty and be tried. A guilty plea can reduce the sentence by up to a third. As at 30 June 2009, members of BME groups accounted for 27 per cent of the overall prison population including foreign nationals (83,454) compared to 25 per cent of the overall prison population (76,190) in 2005.

(Source: Ministry of Justice, 2010)