Latest Headlines

U.K. doubles down on a tactic disproportionately targeting black people


MANCHESTER, England — The United Kingdom’s highest court delivered what seemed like a major victory for civil liberties in 2016, ruling that prosecutors had overreached for decades in using a tactic that sent hundreds of people to prison for life — for murders committed by others.

Defense lawyers, academics and activists had waged a decadelong legal battle, arguing that these so-called joint enterprise cases were unfair and racially biased. They rejoiced at the Supreme Court decision and expected a sharp drop in prosecutions as well as scores of overturned convictions.

Six years later, none of that has happened.

Rather than be constrained by the ruling, senior prosecutors have quietly devised strategies to keep bringing joint enterprise cases and winning convictions. New data, obtained by The New York Times through public records requests, reveals that the Crown Prosecution Service, the national prosecutor, has actually stepped up the pace of such prosecutions since the ruling — even as the homicide rate remained largely stable.

The zealous use of these prosecutions is one example of how British leaders from both parties have pursued criminal justice policies that have disproportionately punished Black people. Black defendants are three times as likely as white defendants to be prosecuted for homicide as a group of four or more — a widely accepted measure of joint enterprise cases — according to the new data.

Joint enterprise itself is not a charge. Rather, it is a legal principle that gives prosecutors the power to charge multiple people with a single crime. It became notorious more than a decade ago in a string of highly publicized cases. In one, a teenager was imprisoned and then deported for a murder he did not even witness, much less carry out. In another, a partly blind 16-year-old, who said he could not even see his friends attacking someone, received a life sentence for murder.

Since the court ruling, the Crown Prosecution Service has tried to avoid such controversy. It has stopped using the term joint enterprise, but the cases continue. A year after the Supreme Court ruling, 11 teenagers from Manchester, England, were sent to prison for a stabbing — even though the judge acknowledged that he did not know if they had all participated in the attack. A young man with autism received a life sentence for a stabbing carried out by someone else while, he said, he sat in a car watching a music video.

While the stream of cases continued, the flood of successful appeals never materialized. Prosecutors opposed them, and judges — having set an extremely high standard for appeals — rejected nearly all of them. Only a single person has been freed since the Supreme Court ruling.

The continued use of joint enterprise is one example of a British tough-on-crime policy that has grown increasingly strident. The new data — along with more than 100 interviews with current and former law enforcement officials, government insiders, lawyers, judges, academics, families and activists — shows that even as crime rates fell, as lawyers and judges protested, as parliamentary inquiries pointed to miscarriages of justice, the government’s messaging got tougher and its tactics got stricter.

Periodically, and as recently as last month, official reports have highlighted systemic racism in the criminal justice system, yet they have been largely ignored. Last year, a government-backed committee said it found no evidence of institutional racism in Britain, eliciting an outcry.

Joint enterprise cases can give prosecutors an advantage by allowing them to lump defendants together and, in many instances, label them gang members. And Black people, research shows, are far more likely to be tagged with that designation.

After being presented with the Times’ findings, a prosecution service spokesperson said that authorities do not apply the term “gang” lightly.

“If a person helps or encourages another to commit a murder, it is right they can face prosecution for their involvement in the crime,” the Crown Prosecution Service statement said.

The agency denied responsibility for any racial disparities and noted that “racial disproportionality is an issue in almost all stages of the criminal justice system.” But the agency said it would begin tracking joint enterprise cases as it develops a new case management system.

Under the joint enterprise doctrine, which has existed since the 19th century, one person may have physically committed the crime, but associates can also be found guilty.

READ MORE:  Ravens-Saints in review: Highlights, notables and quotables from a Week 9 victory

A classic scenario is a robbery in which one culprit steals the cash and another drives the getaway car. In many crimes, though, the roles are less clear. For decades, prosecutors won convictions simply by proving that accomplices should have anticipated the crime, even if they never intended it to happen.

In 2016, the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court threw out that standard. Going forward, to win a murder conviction under the joint enterprise doctrine, prosecutors would need to prove that an accomplice actually intended for the murder to happen. That was a huge change, one that seemed likely to curtail such prosecutions.

Prosecutors have long refused to publish data on how often they bring cases or on the ethnicity of defendants, despite a reprimand and formal recommendations to do so from a powerful parliamentary inquiry as far back as 2014. After the Times filed two formal complaints with the government and the public prosecutor’s office, they relented and provided data on multidefendant homicide cases.

Just one example of the continued use of these prosecutions could be found this year inside Manchester Crown Court, where a 20-year-old Black man named Giovanni Lawrence was convicted of murder for a stabbing carried out by his white friend.

Lawrence was not at the murder scene and never touched the weapon. He was accused of driving a car in a chase leading up to the killing. But prosecutors could find no motive, no history of violence, no security camera footage and no witnesses in the run-up to the attack.

‘How do we win this election?’

In late 2011, England was engulfed by the largest civil unrest in a generation after the fatal police shooting of a Black man, Mark Duggan. Peaceful protests turned violent. Young men with their faces hidden behind scarves and ski masks looted, set fires, hurled bottles and attacked police officers.

The riots quickly came to symbolize simmering racial tensions and the pent-up anger among the young and the poor over government cuts to social programs. But David Cameron, then the Conservative prime minister, blamed gangs, even though official statistics quickly showed that gangs did not play a key role. The government announced millions in new money to target gang crime.

“The police saw this as an opportunity to get resources,” said Peter Herbert, who until his retirement last year was one of Britain’s few Black judges.

Since the mid-1990s, overall crime — including violent offenses — has fallen in England and Wales. It still has far lower levels of serious violent crime than the United States, where the murder rate — and the imprisonment rate — is around five times as high.

“There’s always been a tendency for the U.K. Labour Party to go to the Democratic Party to say, ‘How do we win this election?’” said Herbert, who served as an adviser to former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s attorney general.

“As part of that, they found that ‘criminal justice is your weakness. You can turn it into a strength; just talk about longer sentences, safer streets,’ all these clichés which have an impact on poor people and minorities,” he said.

The Home Office and the Ministry of Justice declined to comment. The National Police Chiefs’ Council, the United Kingdom’s national body for law enforcement, said it was committed to improving policing for Black people, including through new training and increased use of data and body cameras.

The raw numbers were small — an estimated 100 to 200 people were prosecuted in joint enterprise homicide cases each year, according to an analysis eight years ago by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. But in a country with only about 700 homicides a year, joint enterprise cases were a significant share of prosecutions.

And that share is growing. Since the landmark Supreme Court ruling, nearly 15% of homicide defendants have been prosecuted for murder as a group of four or more, compared with nearly 10% before, according to a Times analysis of data obtained separately by the human rights journalism unit Liberty Investigates.

READ MORE:  2022 World Beer Cup winners involve 13 Bay Area breweries

As these cases drew criticism, the Supreme Court handed down its landmark 2016 ruling in the case of Ameen Jogee.

Rebranding

As activists celebrated the ruling, many police officers were alarmed. But a dozen current and former prosecutors and law enforcement officials told the Times that there was never any question of stopping, or even curbing, the use of joint enterprise. The question was how to continue using it.

They needed a strategy for convincing jurors that people intended to commit the crimes, even when they did not carry them out themselves. An elite group of lawyers with the office of the attorney general, the government’s chief legal adviser, trained officers and prosecutors nationwide on how to do just that.

Now prosecutors increasingly focus on a defendant’s frame of mind. Evidence like “association” — the relationship between defendants — takes on a key role in helping prove intent. Social media posts and even the music people listen to can be used to help sway a jury that defendants have a bad character or are part of a “gang.”

Several prosecutors said that, in some ways, the ruling actually made joint enterprise cases easier to win.

As the prosecutors saw it, joint enterprise also needed rebranding. According to a Crown Prosecution Service report, the prosecutors scrapped the label “joint enterprise” because “the term itself has become controversial.” Individual prosecutors might use the term joint enterprise in court, but in public documents and official guidance to investigators, the new term became “secondary liability.”

And it worked.

Data from the Ministry of Justice shows that in the five years after the Supreme Court decision, the number of homicide cases involving four or more defendants increased by 42%.

And prosecutors are winning. The number of convictions rose by nearly 50%. Figures from the Crown Prosecution Service show that Black defendants were three times as likely as white defendants to be prosecuted under joint enterprise.

Research consistently shows that the police are far more likely to apply the gang label to Black people. Young Black people made up 89% of names on the Manchester gangs database, according to researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University. In London, the picture is similarly stark.

“It is driven by a racialized gang narrative, which increasingly is only used in instances where nonwhite people are being prosecuted,” said Patrick Williams, a Manchester Metropolitan University sociologist who has studied joint enterprise for more than a decade.


Data and Methodology

The New York Times obtained data on homicide prosecutions involving multiple defendants covering the period of 2011 to 2020 from the Crown Prosecution Service, Home Office and Ministry of Justice through multiple Freedom of Information Act requests.

The Times’ calculations on the increase in prosecutions is based on Ministry of Justice data on homicide cases — murder, manslaughter, infanticide and causing death by gross breach of duty of care — involving four or more defendants. According to the data, the total number of such cases brought from 2011 to 2015 was 59 (or an average of 11.8 cases per year), while the total number of such cases from 2016 to 2020 was 84 (or an average of 16.8 cases per year).

Calculations of the racial disparity in prosecutions is based on homicide data from the Crown Prosecution Service: conspiracy, attempted murder, causing death of a child or vulnerable adult, child destruction, drunken driving and aiding suicide. According to the data, 32% of Black defendants were prosecuted in cases with four or more defendants, compared with nearly 10% for white defendants. This puts the relative rate index at 3.39.

None of the agencies provided homicide data broken down by murder and manslaughter offenses, as requested. Reporters checked their calculations with leading data and crime experts in Britain, including Gavin Hales, an associate researcher at the Police Foundation U.K., and Tim Newburn, a criminologist at the London School of Economics.

Related Articles

Back to top button