The Justice Gap

Country/area: United Kingdom

Organisation: NationalWorld

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 2/11/2021

Credit: Harriet Clugston, NationalWorld data and investigations editor

Biography: Harriet is a data journalist based in Edinburgh and leads data and investigations projects for NationalWorld, a new national news brand from JPIMedia entirely be journalists outside of London.

Project description:

This investigation exposed a justice gap faced by victims from ethnic minorities when it comes to sexual and gendered violence. I submitted FOI Act requests to police forces across the UK to build a database of crime outcomes by victim ethnicity for rape, sexual assault and domestic abuse offences, and found police were more likely to bring charges in cases where a victim is white.

Two articles were accompanied with a podcast episode.

Impact reached:

The existence of data gaps was something that was conspicuously absent from a major government-commissioned report into racism in the UK earlier this year, of which policing and criminal justice was a core part. However, in a report on violence against women published in September, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabularies said there were “major data gaps” and inconsistencies when it comes to monitoring crime prevalaence and outcomes for victims by their ethnicity. Without this data, HMIC says proper oversight and accountability is impossible, preventing forces from “properly understanding how crimes affect women and girls with protected characteristics” and taking remedial action to address shortcomings.

My project was the first time that outcomes for sexual and domestic violence crimes have been gathered and analysed. It therefore puts the impact of a lack of data on victim characteristics into sharp relief, and makes a strong argument for more robust data gathering in the criminal justice system. The Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales said it was “an important investigation” that helped the call for better data collection to further evidence the scale of discrimination against minority ethnic victims.

It revealed the vast majority of police forces had lower charge rates for Black, Asian and mixed race victims than white across the three crimes examined. Ten forces did not bring a single charge over the rape of a black victim across a five-year period, despite recording 148 victims between them.

Data gathered from the Crown Prosecution Service through an FOI, and read within the context of ONS data on the relative rarity of mixed race relationships, also suggested white domestic abuse victims are more likely to see their attackers face justice in court.

Techniques/technologies used:

I used Freedom of Information legislation to gather crime outcome data by victim ethnicity from UK police forces for between 2016 and 2020. The data required extensive cleaning and restructuring, which was undertaken over several months, to organise the crimes and outcomes into ethnic categories that were comparable and uniform across each police force. I then calculated charge rates for each ethnic group to compare the likelihoods of cases leading to a suspect being charged.

I further obtained data on the number of prosecutions undertaken and convictions secured by the Crown Prosecution Service in domestic abuse-flagged offences broken down by ethnicity of the suspect, again using Freedom of Information Act requests. I initially requested data based on victim ethnicity, but discovered this was not collected by the CPS. The data I received showed that white suspects were far more likely to be convicted than minority ethnic victims. When combined with data from the ONS on the prevalence of inter-ethnic relationships – which are relatively rare in the UK – I concluded that the lower conviction rates for minority ethnic perpetrators most likely in turn reflected minority ethnic victims being less likely to see their abusers brought to justice.

I also analysed Ministry of Justice open data on court outcomes to benchmark the domestic abuse figures. I found that while white people were more likely to be convicted across crime as a whole, the gap for domestic abuse offences was twice as wide as for all crime, strengthening my story

What was the hardest part of this project?

The data I gathered from each police force was extremely messy, with unruly structures that were difficult to clean and reorganise into an intelligible format that would make analysis possible. This required a lot of painstaking manual cleaning, sometimes pouring through data line by line to draw out the ethnicity, crime category, and type of outcome data.

Furthermore, different ethnic categories were in place across different police forces, with some individual forces using multiple ethnic group categorisations simultaneously. Some used. While some used categorisations consistent with ONS and Home Office statistics, breaking ethnicity down into distinct categories such as ‘White British’, ‘Asian Bangladeshi’ and ‘Black Caribbean’, others used broad, vague categories such as ‘North European’ and ‘South European’, often making no allowance for mixed-race people. This made it impossible to gain insights at a national level beyond the umbrella categories of white, black, Asian and mixed race, into which I moulded each force’s figures.

What can others learn from this project?

I think this project is a lesson in looking for the gaps in data, and what might be going untold. The Home Office publishes comprehensive police recorded crime data for England and Wales.

The abduction and murder of Sarah Everard refocused attention on the issue of violence against women and girls and failings within the criminal justice system to tackle it. One aspect of this has been plummetting charge rates over rape offences, with victims very unlikely to see their rapists charged, alongside poor prosecution and conviction performances.

This project was in part inspired by this focus on sexualised and gendered violence, but also by a report published in 2020 by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. The report caused a backlash because of bold conclusions it made about the system in the UK no longer being deliberately rigged against black and ethnic minority people. It included a large section on the criminal justice system, which almost entirely focused on situations where black and minority ethnic people are the antagonist to the criminal justice system – whether as suspects, or through stop and search – with very little attention on their experiences as victims.

As a data journalist I am very conscious of how often public data does not contain ethnicity breakdowns. The phrase ‘data gap’ however does not appear once in the Commission’s report. I therefore decided to plug a gap by replicating existing police recorded crime data but with ethnicity breakdowns, to find the disparities that are obscured by a homogenised approach. I had a hunch that black and ethnic minority victims would suffer even worse outcomes in sexual and domestic violence than white victims – and the data bore the suspicion out.

Project links: