When It Comes to Race, European Justice Is Not Blind

In Bulgaria, half of the people in prison in 2015 were Roma. In Estonia, foreigners are disproportionately represented among people being held in pretrial detention. In Greece foreigners who are convicted of a crime receive heavier sentences than Greeks. Roma in Hungary are three times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police, and are less likely than non-Roma to be released awaiting trial.

These alarming findings are highlighted in a new scoping study, produced by the two of us with Justicia, the EU criminal justice reform network, that looked at the treatment of minority groups and non-nationals by the police and justice systems across 12 European Union member states. The conclusion, unfortunately, is that there is a significant level of unfairness in how people are treated, depending on their ethnic background.

This is believed to be one of the first studies of its kind. Despite efforts by the European Union to ensure that EU members apply common standards in their justice system in terms of arrest rights—such as ensuring early access to a lawyer—the question of standards of ethnic or racial bias have not been on the agenda.

There are no European Union–wide regulations that have standardized data collection and monitoring of outcomes in the criminal justice systems, with particular attention to ethnic and racial minorities, and non-nationals.

In addition, in most of the countries covered by the study, there was a lack of ethnic and racial data. Even when this data was gathered, we noticed a lack of consistent methods of their collection and application of concepts of race, ethnicity, and national origin.

For instance, Romania, the Czech Republic, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Sweden, Slovenia, and Estonia gather criminal justice statistics that are broken down by nationality, but mostly in a selective and inconsistent manner. Only the UK has been systematically collecting data on ethnic and racial minorities for the last four decades in different areas of social life, including in criminal justice. This makes it very difficult to monitor the practices and outcomes of criminal justice institutions and poses main challenges in cross-country comparisons due to lack of correlating data.

Despite these challenges, two principal areas of concern emerged from this study.

First, institutional bias. According to the research, stereotypes deeply rooted in the society are reflected in the practice of police officers, prosecutors, judges, and even, sometimes, in the practice of legal aid lawyers.

Researchers have noticed this practice, among others, in Bulgaria, Spain, or Sweden. In Romania, for instance, an independent expert noted that courtroom officials are deeply biased against people they believe are Roma. In Spain, the existence of clear institutional bias was paralleled by the disproportionate representation of non-nationals in crime rates statistics, pretrial statistics, or prison population statistics.

Additionally, implied bias was noted among Italian and Hungarian police officers, as well those in Romania, who during interviews indicated a common belief that all Roma have criminal characteristics. In the UK, police uses ethnic stereotyping as an evident tactic. Black people, for example, are four times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white people. Ethnic disparities introduced by stop-and-search, and other forms of police activity, remain significant throughout prosecution, conviction, and sentencing.

Second, the research clearly showed that non-nationals do not enjoy the same level of protection for their rights once they are arrested—principally due to a lack of access to both interpreters, and to information on their procedural rights in their own language. The situation is additionally exacerbated by the lack of effective legal aid provision in the majority of the 12 countries in the survey. While this affects detainees and suspects regardless of their ethnic identity or national status, it clearly becomes a far greater challenge when language barriers are also involved.

The limited methodology employed in this study—which is based largely on a survey of existing research and publicly available statistics supplemented by interviews with informative stakeholders—did not enable us to produce a comprehensive picture of existing disparities and their sources, but rather gave some snapshots of areas of greatest concerns. Yet it clearly demonstrates the extent of an issue that casts a shadow over the European Union’s ambitious efforts to introduce common standards of justice and rights across its member states. Having recognized the problem, it’s time to find ways to fix it.

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My modest comment--As a matter of empirical reality there has not been nor will there ever be social and political and economic equality among the demographics of any polity. Never! It is counterproductive and irrational to think otherwise. To all men beguiled by the phrase "all men are created equal" and take that as a moral imperative to set as a worthy objective is a fool's errand and is a prime cause of social conflict. It is understandable and may be thought commendable that some men are distressed by inequality and strive to ameliorate human suffering but that is beside the point.

Dear Sir,
It is hardly beside the point. Whether or not equality is an illusive goal, to surmise that it is not worthy of pursuit because it is unattainable is penny wise and pound foolish. Democracy can only survive in societies where there is some semblance of equality. To lose sight of that, is to allow the dictatorships, the monarchies of feudal societies, and other despotic forms of government to encroach upon what humanity has fervently pursued to eradicate for thousands of years. There will be no prosperity for the majority, without the balancing act of striving for equality actively in motion in a perpetual state. The process is more important than the goal because the outcome is a result of the process itself.

As one who works in the area of anti-racism in Canada, I find the results of your study to be very interesting. The results of similar observations in Canada reveal that our justice sytem is certainly not blind as well. For example, I have been assisting, Dr. Chander Grover, a scientist of Indian ancestry who has won two human rights tribunals for racial discrimination. Yet the Canadian government justice department has been allowed to spend more than $60 million over a 30 year period to deny him justice, This case reveals that the Canadian Human Rights system is broken.

This article is truly sad. People are being treated so bad everywhere just because of race, ethnic background, religion, gender, sexuality or just being different. Even homeless people are treated bad. My friends in America don’t want to have kids afraid if they have a son the son may be killed by police. When a friend tell you this it’s very heartbreaking. More training will not help if the law is racial. We all as a whole must work together. Go to communities get to know other groups of people. We are all human. Love is the cure to all of the hate. Visit these hospitals you’ll see kids sick dying and dad not there because he’s jailed for a crime he did not do. Even killed by police or the streets. Mothers suffering mental illness and depression loss husband and now losing her child slowly. We can’t as people as humans continue to walk around with so much hate. I can’t understand how someone can be so hateful and become a leader of the Country. One thing for sure people can be more vicious than lions. Lions kill for food, people kill for fun. I promote love. I love all and believe there is good in everyone. People get caught up in the negativities. We all have to be active. Helping to change the world to be a better place. If we did not have to focus and fight so much hate we could be finding cures for disease. This article really hit home.

Thank you Sandra, thank you for your sanity.

I have just read these comments, while I agree that people of race can be treated badly, does that include the white race? In South Africa for example: white people that have lived and farmed there for generations are having their land taken from them,being beaten up, white women
being raped, there is no help for them in South Africa, if it’s about human rights, does white people not have rights also Why is there no help for them. I’m really sad about
that, as this has to be a 2-way street learning to live, integrate and except that there is injustices but together we can live in peace. These injustices are on all mankind regardless of colour, race and beliefs what I’m noticing in Europe, is they are trying very hard, maybe too hard with the amount of foreigners coming to Europe it’s frightening, then all the new racial laws that have came with it. People need time to adjust to these changes, Common sense should be used, but I also think there should be the same rules and help for black and white people, Muslim and
Christian people

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