Offenders with Muslim names are not jailed for longer, study finds

Academics question extent of discrimination at crown courts in England and Wales

Offenders who have Muslim names do not appear to be receiving unfairly long sentences from crown courts in England and Wales, according to criminology research.

The study by academics at Leeds, Oxford and Edinburgh universities questions the extent of discrimination in the criminal justice system and calls for publication of official data.

Their findings, published on Tuesday, seem to run counter to the Ministry of Justice’s published statistics on race in the criminal justice system and the 2017 Lammy review that found higher use of custodial sentences and longer sentences for certain black and minority ethnic defendants than for white offenders.

One feature the Lammy report identified was the reluctance of black defendants to plead guilty early in proceedings because of distrust in the system, which resulted in them losing the opportunity for reduced sentences.

The latest report in the British Journal of Criminology exploits what the authors say are “pioneering data-scraping techniques” based on 8,437 hearings between 2007 and 2017 involving defendants deemed to have traditional Muslim names.

Muslim-named offenders received custodial sentences that were 9.8% longer than the rest of the sample, according to the report, but that difference disappeared once a more detailed breakdown by individual offences and key case characteristics such as the plea were taken into account.

The variables assessed by the researchers also included whether a victim sustained injuries, whether there were mitigating factors or multiple offences.

Whether disparities in sentencing between ethnic groups are due to genuine discriminatory practices or to differences in the types of crimes committed is therefore uncertain, the report says.

“These findings should not be taken as conclusive proof of a lack of discrimination in sentencing against Muslim offenders,” cautioned the authors, Dr Jose Pina-Sánchez from Leeds, Prof Julian Roberts from Oxford and Dimitrios Sferopoulos from Edinburgh. Roberts, a professor of criminology, was formerly a member of the Sentencing Council, which publishes sentencing guidelines for judges.

Pina-Sánchez, a law lecturer at the University of Leeds, said: “Our findings are not conclusive evidence [either] of equal treatment [but] they do highlight the importance of considering case characteristics before claiming discrimination exists.

“Our analysis found that the observed differences in sentence length between Muslim and non-Muslim offenders were explained by the characteristics of the cases.

“It is therefore essential to replicate our analyses across all offenders processed through the magistrates and crown court … That data has not been fully disclosed to the public, but there are various data sharing strategies that could be put in motion to facilitate the data to independent researchers in a secure manner.

“Underlying the principle of fairness is the idea that we are all treated equally, and if that is not the case we should consider serious reforms in the system to tackle this problem directly.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “This year we began publishing sentencing statistics by offence and ethnicity so that we can better identify and tackle disparities in the criminal justice system.”


Owen Bowcott Legal affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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