The prosecutors answer the case on colour

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The Independent Online
Uncomfortable questions await any criminologist considering race and the legal system: is racism endemic in it? Why do ethnic minorities, who make up about 5 per cent of the population, account for more than 13 per cent of prisoners? Such questions and the largely and unsatisfactory answers to them have prompted many anti-discrimination polices. But still the figures cast a shadow over British justice.

In one of the must comprehensive studies of its kind, Dr Bonny Mhlanga, a research fellow at the University of Hull's Centre for Criminology and Criminal Justice, is examining whether ethnicity plays a part in Crown Prosecution Service decisions on discontinuing cases, bail, mode of trial and reduction in charges.

Half way through his three-year programme, Dr Mhlanga said: "Discrimination is most difficult to prove. If you ask any of the agencies involved, they will all say race was not an important factor in their decision-making."

He recognised the need for the research after carrying out a five-year study of the treatment of young black men in the London borough of Brent, recently published as The Colour of English justice (Avebury, pounds 32.50). Dr Mhlanga found black defendants were more likely to be charged than their white counterparts but were significantly more likely to be acquitted because of lack of evidence. Those convicted, however, were more likely to receive custodial sentences.

With CPS support and funding from the Economic and Social Research Council and Hull University, Dr Mhlanga began his latest study by gathering details of 8,000 cases considered by 20 CPS branches across the country between September and October 1996. He has factored in 18 variables to try to isolate the race effect on the decision-making.

"I am focusing on three age groups - under 14, 14 to 17 and 18 to 21 - to reflect the fact that more than half the 5 million offences committed in England and Wales every year are carried out by people under 21," he said. "The study is very important for the CPS - it will show whether the picture painted by previous studies when the police were responsible for prosecutions has changed since the inception of the CPS; it will identify the extent to which the service has been fair in its treatment of defendants; and it will set a benchmark against which future performance can be monitored."

The study has thrown up another area of concern: the quality of information in police files. It forms the basis for prosecutors' decisions on charges and bail. Inconsistencies included files where one form listed previous convictions while another attached two months later showed none. "The Government is pressing for good relationships between the police and the CPS," Dr Mhlanga said. "I hope it will not just be a public relations exercise. The CPS must be able to question quite rigorously the quality of information coming to them."

For Ruth Chigwada-Bailey, a criminologist who lectures at Birkbeck College, University of London, the question to be asked was what was the CPS survey going to achieve. Ms Chigwada-Bailey, author of Black Women's Experiences of Criminal Justice (Waterside Press, pounds 16) , said: "We cannot just keep doing all this research when more and more black people are being sent to prison. The agenda should be one of making things happen."

Raj Joshi, of the CPS's casework services division, who is chairing the steering group supervising Dr Mhlanga's study, said: "It is a fundamental way of showing our independence. If it identifies a problem, we will deal with it"n

Grania Langdon Down