Legal reform groups have welcomed a government-sponsored review of possible racial bias in the criminal justice system.

Prime minister David Cameron (pictured) announced yesterday that he has asked Labour MP and barrister David Lammy to investigate evidence of possible bias against black defendants and other ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system.

Cameron said: ‘If you’re black, you’re more likely to be in a prison cell than studying at a top university. And if you’re black, it seems you’re more likely to be sentenced to custody for a crime than if you’re white.

‘We should investigate why this is and how we can end this possible discrimination.’

The cross-departmental announcement states that BAME individuals make up nearly a quarter of Crown court defendants. Those who are found guilty are more likely to receive custodial sentences than white offenders.

Cameron said the review will include examining possible sentencing and prosecutorial ‘disparity’.

Justice secretary Michael Gove said an effective justice system ‘depends on procedural fairness’. Gove said: ‘Equality of treatment at every stage in the criminal justice process is essential.’

The Centre for Justice Innovation, which has long called for a justice system based on procedural fairness, welcomed the review.

Director Phil Bowen said feeling treated with respect and even-handedness ‘is as important as outcomes’.

‘Evidence shows that these perceptions of fairness have a major impact on people’s willingness to comply with the law,’ he added. ‘But we know that many people in ethnic minority communities don’t feel that the system is fair.

‘Therefore we trust the review will make recommendations that help increase the diversity of people working in our criminal justice system agencies and ensure that people from ethnic minority communities going through the system see it as neutral, respectful and fair.’

Greg Foxsmith, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, said advocates rarely encountered ‘overt racism’ from judges and magistrates.

‘Nonetheless, the statistics are stark and show that even in the years since the Macpherson report [in 1999], there remains unfairness within the justice system for people of different skin colour or ethnicity,’ he added.

‘For years we have acknowledged the problem of convert or subliminal discrimination. The challenge for Lammy and for all of us in the justice system is to find a way that actually tackles the problem, and ensures that justice is not just blind, but colour-blind, providing equality of outcome for all.’

Lammy will report back in spring 2017.

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