Joint Enterprise and the criminalisation of young black men

By Becky Clarke and Patrick Williams

The launch of a new report into Joint Enterprise (JE) – where more than one person is prosecuted for the same offence, even if they were not all in the proximity – attracted a lot of interest this week. The response reflected the deep sense of injustice experienced each day by many individuals currently serving JE sentences, and the families who tirelessly campaign for them.

Under JE, if prosecutors can demonstrate that a group of individuals held a ‘common purpose’ then all the participants may be held liable for crimes committed by just one member, even if they did not personally take part and did not even want the crime to take place.

The findings of the research, which was carried out by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies (CCJS), were striking. Of the 250 current JE prisoners that were surveyed, over half were from black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. On average BAME individuals served longer sentences and were usually younger than their white counterparts.

Under this law, multiple people are often convicted of a single offence. On average this was four individuals, but it was often many more. One case had 26 co-defendants. Yet almost half (45%) of the prisoners serving collective punishment under Joint Enterprise, reported that they were not at the scene of the crime when the offence was committed. 

A wider study by Cambridge University, of long-term prisoners, highlighted not only the scale of JE cases but also the potential over-representation of BAME individuals. In a submission to the Justice Select Committee they raised serious questions about whether this could be due to an association that exists in the minds of the police, prosecutors and juries between young BAME people and gangs. 

Four out of five of the BAME respondents (80%) in the CCJS report said that the concept of a ‘gang’ was drawn upon by the prosecution of their court case. This figure was significantly lower for white prisoners.

Analysis of the prisoners' responses revealed the different ways police and prosecution teams implied gang associations in the case of young BAME individuals. But the majority of white prisoners who indicated that gangs had been referred to in court, said that no further evidence had been drawn on to build these associations.

But for the BAME group there were a range of strategies and stereotypes which prisoners reported were brought into the court-room by prosecutors. Synonymous ‘gang names’ such as the “Johnson Crew”, “Gooch”, or “Burger Bar” were used. In other cases local neighbourhoods associated in the media with gang violence were drawn upon to imply gang involvement. In addition, photographs on social media, music videos and rap lyrics were also used by the prosecution as evidence of gang involvement. In other cases, the simple appropriation of ‘gang speak’ with utterances of "the Kray twins”, or “a group of hoodlums” and “…sending soldiers for revenge,” all served to cement in the minds of jurors, a racialised association with gangs and violence.   

The research also revealed that such associations, used to imply ‘common purpose’, are contingent upon the use of stereotypes of young black men as being involved with violent crime. In fact, many BAME prisoners told us that they were not gang members and that this was a ‘made up' feature of the prosecution case. Here are some of the responses from prisoners, on this issue:

"I have never been in a gang. I was a family man who had a good job."

"I was the only female, 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.’

‘I was brought up with the same group of people through school to holidays with family, we were very close and always together so the prosecution found it easy to call us gang members.’

‘One of my [co-defendants] was an active ‘gang member’ but I was not. I was a friend of a gang member so I was also judged to be a gang member.’

Analysis of official police data provides evidence to disrupt this simple, yet dangerous, association made between racial stereotypes, gangs and violence. Using this information the ethnic profile of people who have been flagged as involved with gangs can be compared to the ethnicity of individuals who have been convicted of serious violent offences. 

It showed that despite featuring heavily in gang databases, black people are not responsible for most serious violence in those cities. Indeed, official data illustrates that the majority of successful prosecutions for serious violence are of white people.

The harm caused by serious violence is always a tragedy. But the injustice experienced by individuals and families wrongly convicted because of joint enterprise only extends that tragedy. This new report adds further weight to calls for the law to be urgently reviewed. It's time the government listened.

Becky Clarke is a Senior Lecturer in the Sociology Department at Manchester Metropolitan University. Patrick Williams is a Senior Lecturer in Criminology at the Manchester Metropolitan University. They are co-authors of the Dangerous Assosciations report on Joint Enterprise.

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