Criminal justice agencies must work closely with disabled people and their organisations if they are to correct their failure to deal with disability hate crime, say campaigners.
They spoke out as an independent report on the barriers to the identification, investigation and prosecution of disability hate crime across England and Wales concluded that it was “the hate crime that has been left behind” by the criminal justice system.
The report says “attitudes need to change” so that disability hate crime is as high-profile as racially- and religiously-aggravated crimes and is “routinely considered by front-line staff”, and it concludes that victims are being “let down” by the criminal justice system, while progress to improve their experience of reporting offences has been “too slow”.
It points out how failings across the criminal justice system helped lead to some of the most notorious hate crime cases of the last six years, including the deaths of Francecca and Fiona Pilkington, David Askew and Michael Gilbert.
The police, CPS and the probation service all face criticism in the joint report by HM Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate, HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and HM Inspectorate of Probation.
The probation service is particularly heavily criticised, with probation trusts described as viewing disability hate crime as “a very small part of their work and therefore not a priority”.
The trusts were unable to provide inspectors with details of how many offenders they had supervised for committing disability hate crimes, because their IT systems did not allow them to collect this data.
The new report, Living in a Different World, also says that just seven out of 810 cases (0.86 per cent) that were “flagged” as disability hate crimes by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) ended with magistrates or judges handing down a stricter sentence – or “uplift” – under section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003.
Every one of the judges interviewed for the report said they were only being asked by CPS lawyers to consider a section 146 uplift on “a very exceptional basis”.
A CPS spokesman said the figure of 0.86 per cent was a “concern”, although due to recording problems the true figure was probably much higher, while it was not always possible to collect enough evidence to prove an offence had been a hate crime.
But he added: “It’s vital that we ask for the sentence uplift wherever possible and this will be a priority moving forward.”
The report concludes that there is “a lack of clarity and understanding” about the definition of a disability hate crime, and that all three services should urgently produce a “single, clear and uncomplicated definition” that can be understood both by staff and the public.
It also says that the under-reporting of disability hate crime by disabled people remains a “significant concern”, and calls for improvements in how both police and CPS identify and record such offences.
Inspectors visited six police areas, and their associated probation and CPS offices, and talked to disabled people, judges and other agencies, watched seven disability hate crime court cases, and spoke to the UK Disabled People’s Council and Mike Smith, who led the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into disability-related harassment.
Stephen Brookes, a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network (DHCN), said the report showed there was “an awful lot more work to do”.
He said that the application of section 146 was “a joke”, while “too many magistrates don’t know of its existence”.
He said it was essential that the criminal justice system worked with disabled people to address the report’s concerns, including the need for a simple definition of disability hate crime and better staff training.
But Brookes said it was vital to secure any changes “with the agreement of disabled people”*.
He also called for the government to create a stand-alone offence for disability hate crime, rather than just using the section 146 sentencing uplift.
Dale Simon, director of equality and diversity for the CPS, said they were “determined to improve further the way we prosecute disability hate crime in partnership with the police”.
She said CPS would be meeting with senior police officers and the probation service to discuss how they could “work together more effectively”, and would be “refreshing and consolidating” guidance for prosecutors, and launching a hate crime action plan later this year.
A Home Office spokeswoman said it had improved the way police forces collect and record data on hate crimes, and would “keep working with disability groups to ensure victims have the confidence to come forward”.
She said that last year’s cross-government hate crime action plan “brings together work by a wide range of departments and agencies to prevent these terrible crimes happening in the first place, to increase reporting and victim support, and to improve the operational response”.
A spokeswoman for the National Offender Management Service said it would publish its own hate crime framework in July, which would help staff in prisons and probation trusts “in identifying, assessing, and managing offenders involved in hate related offending”.
*The report’s publication comes as DHCN and Disability Rights UK, with support from the Office for Disability Issues, prepare to launch a “toolkit” to help the development of “third party” centres where disabled people can report hate crimes.