Kate Bradley writes that the government’s new proposals to combat gang crime will cause more miscarriages of justice.
Two weeks ago, the London Mayor’s Office for Policing And Crime (MOPAC) announced that it would provide £200,000 to pilot the new ‘Shield’ scheme in the London boroughs of Haringey, Westminster and Lambeth. Shield is being billed as a “tough new gang intervention programme” – it will allow the whole gangs to be punished for the criminal actions of one gang member.
This proposal sounds a lot like the highly controversial Joint Enterprise doctrine in British law, which allows the justice system to press charges against people for crimes that they did not commit if they knowingly assisted or encouraged the crime. In some cases, such as that of Jordan Cunliffe, ‘knowingly assist’ or ‘encourage’ seems to amount to being present while a crime is committed, or, commonly, being part of a friendship group with the offender. Between 2005 and 2013, the Joint Enterprise doctrine was applied to over 4500 murder prosecutions, and disproportionately affected black and minority ethnic communities: according to a publication by the House of Commons Justice Committee, 37.2% of those serving very long sentences for joint enterprise offences are Black/Black British, eleven times the proportion of Black/Black British people in the general population and almost three times as many as in the overall prison population.
The Injustices of Joint Enterprise
The Joint Enterprise doctrine is controversial because it relies so much on perception. It is impossible to entirely recover what some knew and intended of another person’s behaviour. In more difficult cases, prosecution will rely on what the police, juries and judges believe to have been people’s intentions. In a case discussed by the campaign group Joint Enterprise: Not Guilty By Association (JENGbA), in 2009, Amisi Khama was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment after one member of the group with whom he was cycling stabbed and killed someone. In this case, the judge directed that a “knowing look” would suffice to find the boys guilty. It is not clear what quite constitutes a “knowing look”, and it is remarkable that a judge would so much faith in a facial expression in such a highly charged environment.
In an excellent documentary on Joint Enterprise, the BBC followed the families of young men who have been given life sentences following the application of Joint Enterprise, one of whom was convicted because the police assumed he must have known that his friend had a gun. He said he did not know, but this was not enough for a court to believe him.
In both of these cases, the young men being tried were black. Centuries of racist propaganda right up to the present day have conditioned the police (along with most of society) to homogenise people of different races, perceive blackness as danger, and distrust anyone who appears working class. So how can we trust that the police will take innocent people at their word, especially if they are people of colour?
‘The Police Know Who You Are’?
The same misgivings are applicable to the Shield scheme. During the announcement of the scheme, Boris Johnson addressed gang members from the safety of his office, saying, “the police know who you are and if anyone in the gang steps out of line then every member will face consequences”. But, in light of the misapplication of Joint Enterprise, how can we really trust that the police do “know” who gang members are?
‘Gangs’ are largely defined from the outside. Across the world, some gangs distinguish themselves by wearing particular items of clothing, or using special signs of recognition, but predominantly, gangs are friendship groups who are labelled ‘gangs’ by the police after one or more of their members engage in crime. Jonathan Heale, author of One Blood, a study of British street gangs, pointed out that “every group is perceived to be a gang when in fact they are just kids hanging around street corners because they have nothing to do”. The police are not immune to stereotyping, and if loose networks of association are enough to prosecute a whole group of people for one person’s crime, a series of injustices are bound to follow in the Shield scheme’s wake.
Even if it were entirely possible to determine gang membership, hierarchies of power inside gangs are complex, like in every friendship group, and not every member will have equal access to information or influence within the group. Under this scheme, less powerful gang members will be condemned alongside their leaders and come out of the experience with a criminal record, stigmatised, unemployable and therefore more likely to (re)turn to crime.
Causes and Solutions
The one mitigating factor in the proposed Shield scheme is the funding it will channel into targeting the causes of gang violence and crime. However, this will only improve the scheme if its enforcers actually do their research and correctly discern causes, rather than scapegoating overburdened parents and underfunded schools – and there is no evidence that this government is likely to get it right.
For constructive intervention that targets the real causes of gang violence, we must overturn our oppressive economic programmes, which distribute opportunity and wealth unevenly across society and protect old economic inequalities; we must reject austerity policies and cuts to youth services and welfare, which leave young people without hope or opportunities; and we have to fight racism, which encourages the police to turn friendship groups into ‘gangs’ through stereotyping, objectification and schemes like Shield.
The thought of being punished for someone else’s actions, when applied to individuals we know and love, seems preposterously unjust. Yet the public ignores it in cases like this because we are systematically taught to dehumanise and deindividuate people perceived to be ‘dangerous’ or ‘criminal’.
Shield perpetuates the very problems it claims to solve. Putting more young black men behind bars is no long-term solution to gang violence.