Racists escape because of CPS failure, says watchdog

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Racists escape with lenient sentences because prosecutors downgrade charges before cases get to court, an independent watchdog reports today.

In the report from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) Inspectorate, they found one fifth of race charges were wrongly reduced so they did not properly reflect the racist element of the crime. They also identified an inconsistency among CPS lawyers, with some more willing to pursue racial crime than others.

They concluded: "Concerns remain about the quality of the CPS decisions to reduce charges arising from racist incidents. We saw a significant number of cases in both our original and follow-up file sample which we considered that the original charge was reduced inappropriately."

The inspectorate's last investigation of "CPS casework with a minority ethnic dimension", published two years ago, found that the problem extended to cases which where being discontinued.

This was confirmed last year when a report by the distinguished academic, Professor Gus John, criticised police and prosecutors for their willingness to drop race charges.

Today the CPS Inspectorate concludes that since its last review of 292 cases much progress has been made, with fewer cases being discontinued.

But they added: "The CPS policy statement requires that prosecutors 'must place evidence of racial aggravation before a court in a plea or a trial when it is proper to do so'. The progress that we have described in this report will be undermined if the policy is not observed so that the charges are pursued by the CPS properly reflect the seriousness of the offending and give courts adequate sentencing powers."

The report also noted that the CPS was using many solicitor or barrister "agents" to prosecute cases in the magistrates court rather than their own employed lawyers.

They warned: "Those agents have not received the benefits of the CPS national training and their understanding of the awareness of the issues covered in this report is variable."

Last month, figures by the CPS showed that race-hate crime in England and Wales had reached record levels, with 2,000 more cases being prosecuted than 1999.

The increase in race cases received by the CPS in 2002-03 followed a 20 per cent jump the previous year. Of the 4,192 received, cases were brought against 3,116 defendants, 442 more than in 2001-02. Seven out of 10 of the charges resulted in guilty pleas and 15 per cent in convictions after a trial. The overall conviction rate of 85 per cent was 1 per cent up on the previous year.

Last year, Professor John published his own findings into what effect race had on decisions taken by prosecutors. His conclusions followed a two-year investigation of 13,000 separate files sent by the police to the CPS.

Although he said the data available to his researchers was insufficient for them to determine whether there was any racial bias, his study found police had failed to recognise racial aggravation in 19 of the 46 cases.

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