November 29 2021

If the government wants to tackle racism in the justice system, ditch joint enterprise

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on twitter

If the government wants to tackle racism in the justice system, ditch joint enterprise

Charlotte Henry, Alex's sister, campaigning with JENGbA


JENGBA 3If the government seriously wants to tackle racism in the justice system – and they are genuinely concerned about the disproportionate number of black men locked up in British prisons – then they need to tackle joint enterprise as a matter of urgency.

If David Lammy, who this weekend was appointed to head up the government’s review of racism in the justice system, wants a body of evidence to support the unstoppable momentum for change, can I recommend he read a new report published by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS) published last week?

For all the concern about the racist and indiscriminate application of what is a discredited common law doctrine, we know precious little about it – until now. Shockingly, the Crown Prosecution Service does not hold records on how often, and in what cases joint enterprise is used to prosecute. The new study – Dangerous associations: joint enterprise, gangs and racism (PDF) – shines some light into the darkness. It draws on a survey completed by 241 of JENGbA prisoners. We sent out 550 questionnaires.

Over half of all respondents (53%) described themselves as black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) – to put this into context, less than one in five prisoners are from that group (18%). All but 10 of the JENGbA respondents (4%) were serving JE sentences for murder; nearly a quarter (23%) claimed to have no previous convictions; and almost half (48%) were under 25 years old. Of this younger group, they were on average serving sentences of 20 years.

Such serious punishment for young and often vulnerable people would be of concern in any event; but in the context of the flawed nature of joint enterprise.

The average number of co-defendants prosecuted for each case was four with a maximum of 26 individuals. That’s close to 600 individuals implicated in JE convictions, just from the small sample of the JENGbA cases.

Joint enterprise convictions represent a significant section of the prison population.

Whilst six out of 10 of the JENGbA prisoners (59%) reckoned that the term ‘gang’ was cited in their trials, only a tiny number – five prisoners – claimed to have actually been as gang-members.

There was a launch for the CCJS report in the House of Commons last Tuesday. A panel was chaired by the former chief Andrew Mitchell MP; Lord Alan Beith who headed up the House of Commons’ justice committee for its joint enterprise investigation which at the end of 2014 called for an urgent review; and the shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter MP.

JENGbA families from all over the country turned out in numbers, but it was a positive sign to see so many MPs as well as members of the Upper House. Alan Beith recgnised that the CCJS study added to the concerns identified by his committee (and said that the mandatory life sentence even if an individual had been on the periphery of a crime was ‘an absolute travesty’). The committee’s new chair, the Conservative MP Robert Neil said that joint enterprise ‘does not operate justly’.

Andy Slaughter thanked us for keeping him ‘on his toes’ (no problem there – and we are not going anywhere). It was good see other MPs lending their support, for example, Kate Osamor, the new MP for Enfield who grew up in Tottenham and has seen her community damaged by unfair JE prosecutions; and Steven Pound, Labour MP for Ealing. I have spoken to Stephen frequently – from the day Kenneth Alexander was convicted. ‘We haven’t said enough about the suffering of people swept up with this absurd law. [JE] is wrong at every level. This is injustice writ large,’ the MP said.

I asked the panel if we win – and there is a reform – will the all the prisoners sentences be reviewed (or will they be abandoned like the IPP prisoners)? The panel told us to keep the pressure up. Of course, we will. None of us will give up on our loved ones.

The report included a letter that the Met Police had been handing out in London housing estates – as featured on the Justice Gap (and in an article by the Justice Gap editor Jon Robins for the Independent on Sunday).

Met letterThis letter from the Met stated that:

‘Under a piece of legislation called “Joint Enterprise,” you may be convicted of a crime and sent to prison:

* for just being present when a serious crime is committed,

* or being with those persons who commit a crime and you don’t try to stop it.’

If the police can’t get the law right, then frankly what hope is there? The CCJS reckons the Met’s letter was the ‘latest, and perhaps the ultimate conflation’ of dubious policing and prosecution strategies’.

We have known for some years that JE disproportionally targets young black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people. We know it is ‘institutionally racist’. The ‘gang’ label is so lazily and inaccurately applied in JE prosecutions. We have a case where the judge conceded that five black children between 13 and 15 years old ‘might not have been in a gang’ – they were walking home from school – but, he said, ‘you were a gang on the day’. The new study finally puts our anecdotal evidence into a coherent argument backed by robust research.

We have a reached a tipping point. Thanks to the CCJS, Patrick Williams and Becky Clarke of Manchester Metropolitan University. Lord Herman Ouseley, JENGbA’s patron also attending said, ‘This has been a long time coming. We must keep the issue of joint enterprise front and centre.’

We plan to – over to you, David Lammy.


3 responses to “If the government wants to tackle racism in the justice system, ditch joint enterprise”

  1. Christopher Lennon says:

    Gloria Morrison again and this time she is completely carried away by a report from the think tank Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS), finding an emotive “unstoppable momentum for change” and a “discredited common law doctrine”.
    Really? Jo Public has not been consulted yet and his and her attitude may be gauged from comments on threads in the popular press online and perhaps typified by the bemused smile of the bystander at the left of Gloria’s picture of the JENGbA demo. The public does not like knifing deaths of young people in their own neighbourhoods, or the carrying of knives, or guns, for that matter and whether you choose to call groups participating in anti-social behaviour “gangs”, or “groups of friends”, they don’t like that either, having seen it with their own eyes, on the streets, in town centres, on tubes and buses, even in schools, or on their TV screens. Ask Jo public if the entire law on accessories to crime should be jettisoned, because that is what Gloria seems to be advocating and you would get a pretty resounding ‘No’, I imagine.
    Whilst ackowledging the letters legal blunder, you would not get much, if any, support from the Police, either, Gloria, because they are at the sharp end, so to speak.
    The public will also have noted the preponderance of young BAME participants, confirmed by the multiple mugshots in their local newspapers when culprits are sentenced and cares not a jot if the individuals are “vulnerable” – another emotive and very hip word – if they have been convicted of behaviour they wish to see stamped out. It is a dubious tactic for JENGbA to seek to play the race card in this context and a misuse of statistics to use a too small sample to compare the proportion of their client prisoners who are BAME with the overall prison population, whose crimes cover a much wider field and whose age profile is also much wider, especially given the current popular indifference to, nay, enthusiasm for, octogenarians being locked up for sexual offences committed decades ago. In David Lammy, JENGbA has a champion, but, alas, in his career to date, he has not demonstrated a great deal of intelligence and if he produces a credible and authoritative report proving racism in the justice system, where juries are carefully balanced and judges lean over backwards and everyone is politically correct, or else condemned on all sides, I would be very surprised, mainly because I doubt it exists.
    There is a case for a re-examination of the law on accessories, of which joint enterprise is one part and in conjunction with a review of the mandatory life sentence for murder, which has been called for by academic and informed opinion for many years and these two different problems come together in the cases JENGbA is concerned about. Accessories to murder are guilty of murder, together with the principal; let us make no bones about it, but the extent to which the peripheral actor, or mere follower, is a participant, is what needs to be looked at by the courts and the Supreme Court is already doing so in one landmark case, with a decision yet to be reported, I believe. The judges have the power to amend the application of the doctrine, so as to convict principals and active participants of murder and lesser fry of manslaughter, which would go some way to meeting current concerns. They also have, and exercise, the power to fix lower ‘tariffs’ for the less guilty sentenced to ‘life’.
    Otherwise, it is going to mean legislation. It would be simple enough for Parliament to abolish the mandatory life sentence and a welcome return to judicial discretion, but no government has shown any enthusiasm for doing so, pace Lord Beith’s “absolute travesty” – it’s the Law, so there is a hill to climb.
    Legislation to ‘abolish’ the joint enterprise doctrine, or to codify the entire law on accessories, appears equally unlikely to happen. It would take years, literally, for one thing and secondly and more important, it would most likely produce a statutory regime not very different from the present law, but which might well allow considerably less judicial discretion than at present, so far from the common law doctrine being “discredited”. Not quite what JENGbA seem to have set their sights on.
    Support from the likes of Corbyn acolytes Kate Osamor, Steven Pound and Andy Slaughter is all very well, but it is not even the beginning of a Commons majority for an incumbent government.
    Gloria innocently asked the panel, “will all the prisoners sentences be reviewed(?)” , but we don’t have retrospective legislation, Gloria, as you ought to know by now, or an automatic review of past convictions when the law is further refined judicially, as it might be in this area.
    “Keeping up the pressure” will not be enough, because it comes from a tiny base and has not begun to interest the public, much less produce momentum. The only way to attack past convictions would be to examine and re-investigate each case, seeking new evidence. Only new evidence might, just might, get a conviction overturned in the Court of Appeal through the CCRC (another problem readers of The Justice Gap will be familiar with). Hard work, not mass prisoner releases, or demonstrations, is what JENGbA’s clients ought to be pinning their hopes on.

  2. Sandra Eveno says:

    Enough condemning some for others

  3. Christopher Lennon says:

    Is this the kind of sentence JENGbA is campaigning against?

    “Three Carlisle men have been sentenced to 51-years in prison for their role in the killing of 14-year-old Jordan Watson last June.

    The following two men were found guilty of murder:
    •George Thomson, 19, of Upperby Road, Carlisle, was sentenced to life in prison, and will serve a minimum of 27 years;
    •Brahnn Finley, 19, of Furze Street, Carlisle, was sentenced to life in prison, and will serve a minimum of 14 years;

    The following was found guilty of manslaughter:
    •Daniel Johnston, 20, of Petterill Bank Road, Carlisle, was sentenced to 10 years.”

    Not BAME either. Three white men. Joint Enterprise, or more broadly, the law relating to accessories to murder, targets violent criminals, of whatever ethnicity.

Related Posts