The UK should be ashamed of the ‘joint venture’ convictions. America has put us on notice | Zoe Williams

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The New York Times has just carried out a disgraceful investigation into Britain’s legal principle of ‘joint enterprise’, under which people can be charged with crimes they were nowhere close to.

The report was humiliating for many reasons, especially if you consider the United States to be the world leader in locking people up for no reason other than racism. Black men in the UK are three times more likely to be sued in groups of four or more – the main measure of a joint venture case – than white men. The energy to protest this was stifled six years ago when the Supreme Court ruled joint venture cases were unfair and racist – but nothing has changed.

As the NYT puts it: “Rather than being coerced into the decision, senior prosecutors quietly devised strategies to continue bringing joint venture cases and securing convictions.”

An unknown part of the story is what it does to prisons. I was on the board of a prison charity, the Butler Trust, until this year but avoided the subject as it is a very established organization with Princess Anne as patron, it was therefore more or less impossible to write about prisons without sounding a bit too anarchic. The right amount of anarchy for royalty-endorsed charities sucks.

Yet there was one thing everyone agreed on, from the most conservative prison warden to the most radical forensic psychologist: prison environments survive by assuming that everyone inside is guilty. Everything from internal discipline and behavior management to skills, training, rehabilitation and psychological programs, everything builds on that foundation, that the prisoners rightly ended up there. How do you treat a prisoner who is serving a sentence for a crime he was far from close to?

Sure, you could put him through an anger management course, but it would have to be tailored: “How to manage anger when it’s the perfectly legitimate response to an unfair process.” The effect, even on people who are in fair and square prison, is corrosive. It shouldn’t take an international gaze to put this back on the agenda, but it would be great if the NYT article did.

  • Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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