- published in Solidarity 564
British courts’ application of ‘joint enterprise’ is unjust, and criminalises black and working-class youth.
‘Joint enterprise’ is a common-law doctrine that allows courts to convict not only the person who carried out a crime, but others who helped them to do it. In principle, that sounds reasonable. But since 1984, British courts have used it to convict people who they think knew the crime was going to happen, even if they did not help carry it out.
This has led to a string of unjust convictions, with some people given life sentences in prison simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time – and on occasion, not even in the place that the crime was committed.
In 2016, the Supreme Court declared that the application of the law since 1984 is wrong, but its ruling is not automatically retrospective, and prisoners who would not be convicted today have been denied the right to appeal.
Asher Johnson was convicted of a 2012 murder and is now eight years into a mandatory life sentence, despite the fact the he did not kill the victim: although he did take part in the initial assault, he withdrew from the scene before any weapon was produced. Various courts have frustrated and refused his appeals.
Moreover, unjust convictions have continued. In 2018, Osime Brown was convicted of joint enterprise in the theft of a mobile phone, despite a witness telling the court that Osime had urged the teenagers who did steal the phone not to do so. Osime, who is autistic and learning-disabled, now faces deportation to Jamaica on his release next month.
In 2017, the Lammy Review revealed that nearly half of prisoners convicted under Joint Enterprise are from ethnic minorities, a hugely greater proportion than the twelve per cent of the general population. Cambridge University's submission to a Justice Committee investigation found that the proportion of people serving custodial sentences for Joint Enterprise offences wbo are Black and/or Black British is eleven times greater than the proportion of the general population who are Black and/or Black British (37.2% compared to 3.3%).
Joint Enterprise convictions are fuelled by the narrative of feral working-class youth roaming the streets in gangs, who are jointly responsible for anything that any one of them does. It seems that a friendship group is more likely to be seen as a ‘gang’ if it is made up of or includes black people. The application of this law is a central plank of systemic racism and class oppression in the British judicial system.
Black Lives Matter, including the lives of black people in prison for crimes they did not commit.