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Jail terms given to small number of people who commit hate crimes, says NI report

Only a small number of hate crime perpetrators received prison sentences, Criminal Justice Inspection Northern Ireland said.

More than eight incidents were reported to police every day last year.

Some cases were not prosecuted due to failure to meet the evidential standard to obtain a conviction, a report by chief inspector Barry McGuigan found.

Mr McGuigan said: "This report concludes that the level of hate crimes occurring in Northern Ireland remains stubbornly high, despite the progress that has been made by the criminal justice agencies.

"And when under reporting is considered alongside those incidents which fall below the threshold for prosecution, the situation becomes more glaring."

Violence motivated by racism was responsible for the greatest number of offences, statistics published by the inspectorate showed.

There were 3,108 incidents and 573 files sent to prosecutors across all categories in 2015/16.

A total of 270 convictions were obtained.

Mr McGuigan's report added: "Published statistics illustrated the small numbers of alleged perpetrators of hate crime receiving prison sentences or being placed on probation compared with the overall number of incidents recorded by the PSNI."

It said the PSNI recorded crime as hate-motivated using a "perception-based" system while the Public Prosecution Service took an evidence-based approach.

The inspectorate's report said: "Even taking into account the effects of the perception versus evidential tests and the fact that more than one prosecutorial decision may be recorded against any individual within a case, the numbers of convictions over the past two years compared with total incidents, files forwarded and decisions issued indicated a high attrition rate."

Mr McGuigan said the lack of a consistent approach by "first responders" who engaged with victims was also unacceptable to victims and should be addressed.

He said it would be aided by a review of existing legislation and the consideration of statutory offences similar to those already existing in England and Wales.

The watchdog added: "Every hate crime is a failure for our society."

He said the total of incidents was higher than the equivalent rate in England and Wales.

"When considered alongside those incidents we know are not being reported, but are equally damaging to individuals, the situation is stark."

Recommendations from the inspectorate included:

:: The Department of Justice's (DoJ's) Hate Crime Strategy should be linked to the Executive's Together: Building United Communities strategy or any future cohesion, sharing and integration policy.

:: The DoJ should conduct a review of hate crime legislation in Northern Ireland to establish if change is required and whether the introduction of statutory offences, similar to those in England and Wales, would be beneficial

:: The PSNI should use hate crime specific scenarios when training officers so that they could understand how best to overcome barriers when interviewing victims and witnesses of hate incidents to achieve the best evidence available.

:: The Northern Ireland Prison Service should immediately develop and implement a hate crime strategy.

Peter Osborne, chairman of the Community Relations Council, said there must also be far more support to communities seeking changes in attitude.

"Part of the reason why resolution rates for sectarian and hate crime are lower than crime generally, is because of the real or perceived control of paramilitaries within communities.

"While that perception, and in some cases reality, continues, fewer people will speak out or come forward with information, and resolution rates will continue to be lower.

"In the context of this report we welcome the emphasis that government is now placing on this issue."