Joint Enterpise – A terrible piece of Legislation
(The Tribune, 19th April 2016)
It is a sad but real fact of life that over the years I have had to visit constituents in many prisons from Belmarsh and Dartmoor to Wormwood Scrubs but Whitemoor was a new one to me when I made my way to March via Peterborough this month.
A constituent and neighbour of mine was one of the nearly seven hundred people imprisoned under the principle of “joint enterprise”.
This piece of law was originally brought in to deal with those assisting in duels and saw the seconds or supporters jailed as well as the surviving duellist.
For the past thirty two years Joint Enterprise has been used increasingly to jail members of gangs or groups of people where one member attacks, wounds or kills another person.
In the case of my constituent he was a very young man shopping with three friends when a dispute escalated into a fight with a group of other lads and this tragically resulted in death by stabbing.
Although my constituent had no part in the stabbing and although the person who wielded the knife pleaded guilty he was sentenced to a minimum mandatory tariff of 19 years.
My unlikely companion on this journey to the maximum security prison in Cambridgeshire was Andrew Mitchell – former Conservative Chief Whip and DfID Secretary of State – who is as shocked and horrified as I am by the indiscriminate use of joint enterprise to imprison so many people – mostly young men from minority ethnic communities.
To his credit Mr Mitchell has worked with the campaigning group JENGbA (Joint Enterprise – Not Guilty by Association) and we may have appeared an ill assorted pair as we arrived at the prison (bizarrely opened by Norma Major in 1992) but we were determined to show my young constituent that he has friends and supporters beyond the prison walls.
If Andrew Mitchell and I were infuriated by the tedious process of removing absolutely everything from our pockets – even my return ticket to Kings Cross – and the clunky thumbprint recorder we both knew that it must be a hundred times worse for those like my constituent who had to live in a world where the sunshine comes with stripes and with the knowledge that he neither instigated or committed the crime for which he was imprisoned.
There was actually some good news. On February 18th 2016 the Supreme Court ruled that the doctrine of joint enterprise had been misinterpreted and that the “possible foresight” charge was no longer applicable.
My constituent is a long way from home and the gates haven’t swung open yet but things look set fair for an appeal. He has a job to go to and his young child and her mother are waiting for him.
Working in the prison kitchen has given him another skill as well as the discipline of regular working hours and I am pretty confident that he will be all right on the outside.
However there are hundreds more like him and the millstones of justice grind slowly.
Quite a few other MPs are taking up the cases of their constituents and I profoundly hope that the appeals can be heard swiftly.
Joint Enterprise was a terrible piece of legislation and it is to the eternal shame of the current Mayor of London that he so strongly defended it.
The 698 prisoners banged up under Joint Enterprise have reason to be bitter and I can’t help but wonder what would have been the case if they had all been middle class boys with articulate parents.
Hopefully their day of release is at hand but we need to look again at the way in which we use the word “gang” to describe anything from a group of people walking in the part to neighbours or school friends.
Our failure to resolve the issue of knife crime has led many to use the word “gang” as an excuse for inaction. It is lazy and dangerous.
I came away from Whitemoor with a fair bit of anger and a profound sympathy for not just the victims of the crimes but the young men who were facing decades imprisoned for being in the wrong group at the wrong time.