We are lucky to live in a safe, just and tolerant country and the public rely on prosecutors, law enforcement and the criminal justice system to help keep it that way. That is a fundamental element of our role, and never more so than when we’re tackling hate crime.
Hate crimes are toxic. They ruin lives, create fear and undermine people’s trust in society and its institutions. Recently we have seen worrying examples of islamophobia and antisemitism. Homophobia, transphobia and racism continue to require our vigilance.
However, it is disability hate crime that requires a new, considered approach. Almost 85% of all hate crime prosecutions now result in a conviction. Yet, while disability hate crime convictions went up from 77% to 82% between 2012-13 and 2013-14, the number of completed prosecutions fell from 640 to 574. So we were, in effect, prosecuting fewer cases, more successfully. The numbers we are dealing with cannot possibly represent the scale of the problems disabled people face. A police statistic gives a telling insight: forces believe that one in four allegations of race hate crime are brought to their attention, compared with just one in 30 disability hate crimes.
Hostility can be less explicit with disability hate crime. A perpetrator, for example, may “befriend” the victim but show contempt by stealing their money, knowing the victim may be desperate for company, and won’t report the matter. For a prosecution of hostility on the basis of disability to be successful there needs to be evidence that the offence was motivated by hostility, or that there was hostility towards an individual at the time of, immediately before, or after the offence taking place.
It is important that disability is not confused with a person being vulnerable. With disability hate crime, while vulnerability can be an aggravating factor, there needs to be evidence that an individual was targeted because of their disability. Prosecuting these cases requires extra vigilance to ensure the disability is properly identified and evidence of hostility is not missed. So, we need to probe and question and also understand that the term hostility includes ill will, contempt, unfriendliness, resentment and dislike.
I suspect that the element of hostility we haven’t given sufficient attention to is contempt and the exploitative behaviour that this generates.
As part of our recent disability-hate-crime action plan, a best-practice model is now available to aid prosecutors in decisions related to disability hate crime and we have just introduced an assurance regime to improve the quality and consistency of case handling.
We are not doing our job as prosecutors unless we correctly flag offences as hate crime, identify the supporting evidence, and apply for a longer sentence. We need to assist the courts in dealing with this issue. Often a judge will indicate that the harm caused to a disabled victim can be taken into account when sentencing for the offence. There is also an important issue of justice being seen to be done. Unless the issue of hate crime is properly raised and openly addressed, justice won’t be seen to have been done, especially for the victims.
The public need to know too that we regard disability hate crime as totally unacceptable. By making these applications in open court, publishing data on how often we do so and promoting successful cases, we can drive up confidence in our ability to deal with it.
Our action plan will help us to do this, and so help protect those who may fall victim to these toxic crimes.