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Tough U.K. Prosecutors Evade Court Ruling, Charge More 'Joint' Crimes

The United Kingdom’s highest court issued 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 decade-long battle, arguing that these so-called joint enterprise cases were unfair and racially biased. They and expected a sharp drop in prosecutions, as well as scores of overturned convictions. None of that has happened. Instead, prosecutors have devised strategies to keep bringing joint enterprise cases and winning convictions. New data, obtained by The New York Times through public records requests, shows that the Crown Prosecution Service, the national prosecutor, has stepped up the pace of such prosecutions as the homicide rate remained stable.

The zealous use of such prosecutions is an 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 measure of joint enterprise cases. Joint enterprise is a principle that gives prosecutors the power to charge multiple people with a single crime. It became notorious more than a decade ago in publicized cases. One teenager was imprisoned and deported for a murder he did not witness. In another case, a partly blind 16-year-old, who said he could not even see his friends attacking someone, got a life sentence for murder. The continued use of joint enterprise is an example of a British tough-on-crime policy that has grown increasingly strident. The new data, with 100 interviews with current and former law enforcement officials, lawyers, judges, academics, and activists — shows that even as crime rates fell, lawyers and judges protested, and parliamentary inquiries pointed to miscarriages of justice, the government’s messaging got tougher and its tactics got stricter.

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