Judges to be told of race bias risk

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The Independent Online
JUDGES are to be sent an information package aimed at increasing their awareness of racial and sexual discrimination within the legal system.

The dossier will be issued by the Home Office under the Criminal Justice Act which comes into force next month. It follows repeated claims that a black offender is more likely to receive a prison sentence than a white offender.

Under section 95 of the Act, the judiciary is told for the first time that it has a statutory duty to avoid discrimination. The Home Secretary is required to publish information to 'facilitate performance of this duty'. But the nature of the package is certain to be examined carefully.

The dossier will be careful to avoid endorsing allegations that judges are unduly harsh on ethnic minorities. However, some organisations say the issues are more clear-cut. Last week, the Commission for Racial Equality published a report showing that young blacks were more likely to be charged than whites for similar offences. And a study by the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders published last year found that 16 per cent of the prison population was from ethnic minorities, while they account for less than 5 per cent of the general population.

Black prisoners were less likely to be granted bail even though they had fewer convictions for similar offences than white people, the report found. Black women fared even worse.

The package will reach judges at about the time the Act comes into force at the beginning of next month. Later in the year, the judiciary will be sent a second dossier giving information about the financial consequences of decisions under the new Act. However, as yet, the Government has little idea about what the effect the Act might have in many areas.

Some penal reform groups, such as Nacro, predict that the prison population will rise after October. The Home Office denies this but admits that it does not know how the judiciary will react to a series of new measures, and in particular new arrangements for parole. Most offenders will serve half their sentence, compared with the one-third they now serve. Officials hope judges will reduce sentences accordingly. If they do, there will be little impact on the prison population. If they do not, it will rise.