Legal system 'treats blacks more harshly'

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CRIMINALS may be less likely to re-offend if they are kept out of jail, Michael Jack, the Home Office minister, said yesterday.

But his comments coincided with a report confirming that ethnic minorities - particularly Afro-Caribbeans - are less likely to benefit from schemes to keep offenders from prison.

A report from the Commission for Racial Equality, on a study of prosecuting records of seven police forces, showed that young blacks were more likely to be charged than whites for similar offences. 'In inner-city areas the difference was very substantial indeed,' the report says.

Chris Myant, press officer for the CRE, said: 'The figures give cause for significant concern and all police forces need to look carefully at advice and training for officers.'

The CRE's report confirmed studies by penal reformers and probation officers that black people tend to be more harshly treated than whites, leading for calls for greater recruitment of ethnic minorities among judges, magistrates, police and lawyers.

They conclude black people are more likely to be charged, more likely to be convicted and more likely to receive longer sentences than whites with similar histories and for similar crimes.

Mr Jack was speaking at the introduction of a national set of standards for probation officers. He said: 'Stringently supervised community sentences can be more effective in tackling offending behaviour and helping offenders to stay out of trouble in the future.

'For most offenders community sentences are more constructive than prison. They can help them to avoid re-offending while repaying their debt to the community - often literally. Achieving this is a benefit to both the offender and the community.'

He pledged rigorous enforcement of national standards for community sentences so as to make real demands on offenders' energies. 'Equally importantly, and in line with the Citizen's Charter, they give the public a clear idea of what is expected of both offenders and probation services for sentences to be effective in tackling offending behaviour.'