Trans-Atlantic Dialogues on Race and Incarceration

James Bell delivering a seminar at the Centre for Justice Innovation in London, UK.

To talk about race and ethnicity as it relates to the justice system is often seen as a uniquely American conversation. Yet, although America certainly leads the way when it comes to incarceration and its disproportionate effects on communities of color, there are many lessons and insights to be gleaned from a trans-Atlantic dialogue around the issues of race, justice, and trust in publicly serving institutions. This summer, I traveled to the UK and the Netherlands to begin engaging in these broader dialogues. Although our histories, social systems, and legal particularities are different and often make for tough comparisons, there are disturbing similarities between the treatment of people of color in the American justice system and minority communities in the European contexts that should not be ignored.

Across the United States and Europe, there is now a growing sentiment that minorities and people of color are disproportionately and negatively impacted by the administration of justice.  In the UK, it has become a widespread concern within Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities prompting politicians to dig deeper into the issue. In the Netherlands, it has come to the attention of many in the legal profession and academic community as multicultural neighborhoods, whose residents come primarily from African and Asian countries, continue to grow. Despite their relatively low prison populations, attempts to close institutions have led to documented disparities. In the UK, as reports citing the statistical disparities in outcomes for BAME communities as compared to similarly situated whites continue to emerge, it would appear that bias and racial hierarchy within the justice apparatus is far from a uniquely American problem after all.

A conversation with David Lammy, a Member of Parliament currently researching disparities in the justice system, gave the impression that in addition to these disparities, there appears to be a growing sense of distrust in the administration of justice amongst ethnic minorities, particularly Blacks. In a letter to then Prime Minister David Cameron, Mr. Lammy stressed that, “the justice system must be seen as legitimate”.

I was surprised to learn that justice system legitimacy was being called into question in some quarters. Through my experience in advocating for the equitable administration of justice in the United States, I have seen the devastating impact that a loss of faith in the judicial system and its ability to administer justice, by any segment of the population, can have on civil society at large. When trust in basic societal agreements begins to erode, then a fundamental institution necessary for peace and security is less effective. For those of us here in the United States familiar with communities of color living in concentrated and isolated poverty, we have seen how this distrust has become a problem for the administration of justice in larger society and a significant contributor to our levels of mass incarceration.

Yet, despite this encounter with the uncomfortably familiar breakdown in trust between communities of color and the administration of justice, there are still fundamental differences between our country, the Netherlands and the UK that we would do well to take note of. Chief among those differences is the societal belief that incarcerating people does not reduce crime or increase public safety. This enables the space in those countries to pursue practices that address law violations in ways that are broader than custody, control and suppression.

In these difficult and rapidly changing times it is important that we realize the importance of administrations of justice that promote equity and effectively deliver public safety. Perhaps through a continuation of these international dialogues, we can all learn from one another and work towards creating justice administration that will make good on those promises.