Guilty by default: Discrimination against Roma in the criminal justice system in Bulgaria

    Dilyana Angelova and Slavka Kukova

Nowadays there is prevalent evidence that Roma people are more likely to be drawn into the criminal justice system in the EU Member States than any other ethnic group. Arrest, custodial detention and conviction undoubtedly prevent the integration of prisoners and research continues to show that Roma people remain one of the most marginalised groups within the European Union at large. The overrepresentation of Roma in the criminal justice system within the EU not only reinforces the damaging stereotypes of that group but is also detrimental to their opportunities for a normal life. The professionals within the criminal justice system (lawyers, police officers, prosecutors and judges) are not immune to the widespread damaging stereotypes and deep-seated social attitudes towards Roma. Increasing evidence from countries outside of Europe (especially from the United States) suggest that the unconscious bias towards the objects of criminal justice influence the outcomes of the criminal justice trials.

The awareness of these challenges initiated the project „Fighting unconscious bias and discrimination of Roma people in the criminal justice system (ROMA)” co-financed by the „Equality, rights and citizenship” Programme of the European Union, led by the organisation Fair Trial International. The project’s goals are: a) to raise awareness of how negative stereotyping and social attitudes contribute to the overrepresentation of Roma in the criminal justice system in Bulgaria cases in the criminal justice system; b) to engage experts from the criminal justice system in identifying key risks of discrimination against the Roma and designing strategies for promoting fairness in decision-making; c) identifying and exchanging best practices for combatting discrimination. The project focuses on the participation of Roma in the criminal justice system as suspects, accused and convicted persons. It does not deal with their involvement as victims of crime.

The present report is created as part of the project implementation. On one hand, it compiles the available data on the situation of the Roma in Bulgaria, the social attitudes towards them and their situation as participants in the criminal justice process. We use as basis previous reports, observations and recommendations of international bodies, national governments’ statistics and courts’ case-law. On the other hand, the report presents the viewpoint and personal experience of professionals and participants in criminal justice on the topic of discrimination and prejudices towards Roma. To that end, 23 interviews were conducted in the period June-December 2019, involving judges, prosecutors, police officers, lawyers, representatives of Roma organisations and Roma individuals serving prison sentences. The report concludes with recommendations for remedying the existing discrimination and prejudices towards Roma and pursuing a fairer criminal justice procedure. A draft version of the report was consulted with national legal experts and institutions. Their feedback and comments were taken into consideration for the preparation of the final version of the list of recommendations. The Bulgarian Helsinki Committee would like to thank to all stakeholders who contributed to the report.