Uncovering anti‑Roma discrimination in criminal justice systems in Europe
Across the world, the movement to fight racial disparities in criminal justice systems has been gaining momentum, and there is increasing awareness that structural racism leads to discriminatory criminal justice outcomes for various racial and ethnic groups. In spring 2020, widespread protests racial profiling and violence by the police in the United States led to similar protests in Europe, with hundreds of thousands of people demanding immediate action to recognise and eliminate structural racism. In response, in June 2020, the European Parliament passed a motion condemning racism, hate and violence, and calling on EU institutions, bodies, and Member States to “strongly and publicly denounce the disproportionate use of force and racist tendencies in law enforcement”. The EU Commission subsequently adopted its 2020-2025 Plan Against Racism, in which it recognised for the first time the need to tackle ‘structural’ racism, and to prevent discriminatory attitudes in law enforcement.
This long-overdue recognition of racialised policing is encouraging, but the EU has so far failed to acknowledge and condemn the prevalence of racism throughout criminal justice systems - in courts, prosecutors’ offices, and prisons.
The EU Commission has recognised the need to tackle structural racism.
There is little evidence that EU Member States recognise the seriousness of racial disparities in their criminal justice systems. This denial is not helped by the lack of comprehensive and Europe-wide data on racism and discrimination in criminal justice. Most EU Member States do not collect criminal justice data or statistics disaggregated by race or ethnicity either because it is not standard practice or because it is forbidden by law. This makes it difficult to measure the degree of racial disparities in criminal justice systems.
However, the data that does exist is damning. Studies have shown a significant over-representation of non-majority ethnic groups in crime rate statistics, pre-trial detention, and prison populations of many EU Member States. Racial prejudice is widespread in societies across Europe, and it affects many ethnic groups. Given their long history of persecution and continuing socio-economic challenges, Roma are especially vulnerable to harmful stereotyping and negative societal attitudes that influence perceptions of criminal justice decision-makers, and impact criminal justice outcomes.
This report presents a summary of the findings of research conducted by Fair Trials, in partnership with APADOR-CH, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, and Rights International Spain to provide further insight into Roma disproportionality in criminal justice systems of Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Spain, respectively. Between 2019-2020, researchers conducted 97 interviews with police officers, prosecutors, judges, defence lawyers, and members of the Roma community in all four countries to understand perceptions of how anti-gypsyism impacts criminal justice decisions and outcomes. These were followed by consultations with various local experts and activists, in which the findings of the interviews were shared and discussed.
The results of this research paint an extremely worrying picture of criminal justice systems and their treatment of Roma.
At every stage of criminal proceedings, from arrest until sentencing, Roma defendants are vulnerable to discriminatory attitudes and biases that skew outcomes against them. The very system that is meant to impart fair and equal justice is, in fact, doing the opposite. Roma face structural discrimination throughout the criminal justice system – not just from the police. Policing practices and decisions no doubt have a serious impact on Roma disproportionality in criminal justice systems, but it is the actions of prosecutors, judges, and defence lawyers that ultimately determine the outcome of criminal cases. The prevalence of anti-gypsyist attitudes amongst judges and prosecutors that was identified by this research casts serious doubts on the impartiality of their decisions, including on pretrial detention and sentencing. These have, on occasions, been found to be consciously and overtly motivated by racial biases.
However, it is not just judges and prosecutors that demonstrated bias against Roma defendants during the interviews we conducted. There is also a real risk that defence lawyers – the very people that defendants are supposed to trust to fight for their rights – share the same anti-gypsyist attitudes. This means that for many Roma defendants, they face a system where the odds are stacked against them, and they can count on no-one but themselves to fight the injustice.
Trigger warning: the report contains examples of racist language.
This animation portrays real life experiences uncovered in our research:
Illustration: Dann Perry