Are you more likely to be charged for drugs possession if you're black?

15 October 2013

This article has now been updated with more information.

"There is a term for this, and it's racism."

That was the verdict of Owen Jones, a columnist at the Independent, as he claimed that a black person is far more likely than a white person to be charged if they're found in possession with drugs.

In asserting this he quoted the following statistics:

"...a black person found with cannabis is five times more likely to be charged than a white person; and while 44% of white people found with cocaine are charged, it rises to 78% with black people."

Owen Jones cites as his source the charity Release, which campaigns for the decriminilisation of drug possession. It recently produced a report on how those from black and ethnic minority (BME) backgrounds receive "a harsher response" at the hands of the police - they're more frequently stopped and searched and, in the case of possession, are more often charged rather than cautioned.

Owen Jones uses figures from this report, but in his article he doesn't mention that the numbers only refer to London. 

Release obtained its data on drugs possession charges via a Freedom of Information enquiry. While it sent requests to every police force in England and Wales, most of them failed to supply the necessary data. The charity explains that it chose to analyse the "robust" data provided by London's Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) because this police force undertakes 50% of all stop and searches for drugs in England and Wales.

The London School of Economics analysed the data on behalf of Release, and it concluded that MPS figures for 2009/10 show that - as Owen Jones says - a black person caught in possession of cannabis is five times as likely to be charged as a white person. To be charged with possession is the most serious outcome, as it involves a referral to court. In general, black people were more frequent recipients of every other type of sanction - whether that be a warning, a Penalty Notice Disorder (PND) or a caution.

As for charges of cocaine possession, Owen Jones once again is quoting the figures in Release's report. In 2009/10, the MPS charged 77% of black people caught in possession of cocaine (644 of a total of 836) compared with 44% of white people (1,022 of 2,326). 

These statistics do not necessarily prove that someone's ethnicity determines how likely they are to be charged. Whether or not someone has a previous conviction, and the amount of drugs they're in possession of, might also influence any police decision.

Previous convictions

Of those who were charged with possession, Release and the LSE determined how many had a previous conviction by isolating the number of people who were being charged for at least the second time or were being given at least a second warning. (For those who received a caution or a summons, it's not possible to tell whether they had any previous convictions - a caveat noted by the reseachers.)

From their analysis of MPS's data, they concluded that a black person caught in possession of cocaine is more likely to have a previous conviction than a white person - 40% of black people had been charged or warned before, compared with 24% of white people. However, Release points out that - relative to population size - black people in London are also at greater risk of being stopped and searched

Amount of drugs in someone's possession

In addition, someone in possession of a larger quantity of drugs might be more likely to be charged. However, the police don't make a record of drug quantity and in this area there are no guidelines for determining whether someone is charged instead of cautioned. It is - to a certain extent - a matter of police officer discretion. As we don't know the circumstances of each individual case, we can't tell whether this is one of the reasons why a disproportionate number of black people are charged.

We know that London is not representative of the country as a whole. However, the city's statistics, as presented by Release, are certainly striking. However, we do need to be a little cautious before concluding that this is evidence for the force being "institutionally racist", as the Black Police Officers' Association of the MPS has alleged.

UPDATE (23 October 2013)

Release has kindly provided us with the data behind its report. The final paragraphs of this article have therefore been updated to reflect this.


Flickr image courtesy of alex@faraway

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