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Too many women at double disadvantage

By Katharine Sacks-Jones, Director at Agenda

Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) women in the criminal justice system are a minority within a minority, so highlighting their needs can be particularly challenging. Agenda’s new report Double Disadvantage, conducted with Women in Prison, shows powerfully why it’s so important to listen to them.

In focus groups both in prison and in the community, women told us they felt treated unfairly from the courts right through to prison. They believed they were discriminated against because of both their gender and ethnicity – and this needs to stop.

All women are more likely than men to be remanded and then not receive a custodial sentence. But BAME women face additional challenges. Black women are much more likely than white women to be given custodial sentences for the same offences, for example.

Our report also highlights other areas where BAME women felt they were at a disadvantage:

  • They felt treated unfairly in court and unjustly penalised by judges and juries, who they said were often made up of white men
  • They said they were not listened to or informed about court proceedings. For example, only one woman out of 20 knew whether she had had a pre-sentence report
  • They felt discriminated against in prison and experienced racism from both staff and other prisoners
  • The impact of going to prison on their families was far-reaching, with children often separated from their mothers. Some were ostracised by their communities

The sexism, racism and unconscious biases that the women we spoke to reported should have no part in the criminal justice system. That’s why Agenda and Women in Prison are now calling for greater focus on the distinct experiences of BAME women across the criminal justice system.

We want to see a reduction in the use of remand and custodial sentences and a greater emphasis on community-based support for BAME women instead. We want racism stamped out in prisons, with staff recruited who reflect the gender and ethnicity of those they work with. Steps should also be taken to ensure contact is maintained between imprisoned BAME women and their families, especially children.

Our report is to help inform the Lammy Review. We hope that, as a result, the new government – of whatever complexion – will take notice of this group of women and make the changes necessary to ensure they do not continue to be at a double disadvantage.

Agenda is the Alliance for Women and Girls at Risk.