Victims of injustice speak out against unfair convictions

Monday, 25 January 2016

A survey of nearly 250 serving prisoners convicted under joint enterprise provisions has found evidence that black and minority ethnic people are serving long prison sentences because of unfair and racist criminal justice practices.

The survey results are contained in a new report published today by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.

The report – Dangerous associations – tracks the complex process of criminalisation through which black and minority ethnic people are unfairly identified by the police as members of dangerous gangs. This apparent ‘gang’ affiliation’ is used to secure convictions, under joint enterprise provisions, for offences they have not committed. The report will be discussed with MPs at a specially convened meeting in the House of Commons on Tuesday, 26 January. It will also be debated at separate events with practitioners, activists and campaigners in Manchester and London.

Under joint enterprise provisions, a number of people can be prosecuted collectively for an offence committed by only one person. In many cases it is enough for a defendant merely to be acquainted with the guilty party. A defendant does not need to know the guilty party at all. As one prisoner convicted under joint enterprise provisions told the report authors:

‘I was not a gang member. I know both of the intended victims and I had and do not have any conflict with them’.

The consequences of conviction under joint enterprise can be devastating for the defendant, their families and the wider community. As another prisoner said:

‘I was a mother studying to be a midwife. My partner was an electrician, we had a life, we did not “hang around” with anyone’.

Dangerous associations also finds evidence that it is black and minority ethnic defendants who bear the brunt of joint enterprise prosecutions. Over half of the prisoners who responded to the survey (53 percent) described themselves as black and minority ethnic. This is much higher than the proportion of all prisoners from black and minority ethnic groups: some 18 percent.

More than three quarters of the black and minority ethnic prisoners told researchers that the prosecution claimed that they were members of a ‘gang’. This compared with 39 percent of white prisoners. Yet as the report points out, lists of gang members maintained by the police include people who ‘have no proven convictions and… those who have been assessed by criminal justice professionals as posing minimal risk’. The gang lists are also dominated by black and minority ethnic people, as a result of racial stereotyping.

  • 89 percent of those on the Manchester Police gang list (Xcalibre) were black and minority ethnic. Yet only 23 percent of those convicted of serious youth violence were black and minority ethnic people.
  • 87 percent of those on the Metropolitan Police ‘gang matrix’ (Trident) were black and minority ethnic. By contrast, only half of those convicted of serious youth violence were black and minority ethnic people.

The report offers a troubling exposé of the use of collective punishment against black and minority ethnic people, based on racism, rumour and innuendo.

Among the recommendations are:

  • A rethink of the use of racist ‘gang’ stereotyping in the policing of serious violence.
  • Greater transparency in the use of joint enterprise, through the production and publication of official statistics on the charging and prosecution in relation to joint enterprise, including information on the age, gender and ethnicity of defendants.

Will McMahon, Deputy Director at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, said:

‘Prosecutions under joint enterprise all too often seem to involve a dangerous cocktail of innuendo, hearsay and racism. If you have a black skin you are much more likely to be convicted under that law. This report shows that a large number of people may have been given long sentences for offences they did not commit. Regardless of ethnicity, this is an affront to justice.  An urgent review is needed’.

Patrick Williams, lead author on the report said:

‘Serious violence affects all communities irrespective of ‘race’ and ethnicity, class, gender and age.  Our research suggests that the ongoing preoccupation with the gang results in the unwarranted targeting and policing of young black men, which diverts attention away from the wider problem of serious violence throughout England and Wales.  The survey responses reveal the human tragedy of young lives disrupted and damaged by the indiscriminate use of collective punishments as currently practiced through the doctrine of joint enterprise’.

Gloria Morrison, Campaign Co-ordinator at JENGbA, which campaigns for reform of joint enterprise laws, said:

‘Joint Enterprise is a common law used against common people and makes no common sense. This lazy law allows for lazy policing and is the perfect tool for lazy prosecutors. Its continued use has undermined the British legal system to the point that a defendant is now guilty until they can prove themselves innocent. People are serving life sentences for crimes they have not actually committed’.