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Women in prison for life for violent crimes they did not commit, JENGbA research report reveals

Full report and links at the bottom of the page

A report released today (16th November) written by academics at Manchester Metropolitan University reveals new evidence about the number and experiences of women in prison under unjust laws of complicity known as joint enterprise.

The report, Stories of Injustice is an examination of the process of criminalisation for women convicted under joint enterprise laws. The use of this law in England and Wales remains hidden, but this research reveals for the first time that at least 109 women have been sentenced to long prison terms for joint enterprise convictions. The report details harrowing examples of the experiences of these women, seeking to understand how and why this injustice occurs.

The youngest girl in the research was charged at 13 years old, while the oldest woman serving a joint enterprise sentence is currently 68 years old. Many (34%) were young adults (18 to 25) when charged, while there were six who were children under 16 at charge. The majority have convictions for serious violent offences, with over three quarters convicted for murder or manslaughter offences. This is despite the fact that in no cases did the woman or girl use a deadly weapon, in 90% of cases they engaged in no violence at all, and in half of the cases they were not even present at the scene.

Yet most of the women are serving long or indeterminate prison sentences at an average of 15 years, with almost half (47%) serving life sentences of up to 30 years. Despite a 2016 Supreme Court ruling which found the law had “taken a wrong turn” when it comes to joint enterprise, this research reveals that secondary parties (as they are known in the law) continue to be convicted as if they committed the offence. With 16 of these women convicted since the 2016 ruling. The convictions date back to 2004 and the women are from towns and cities across England and Wales. Campaigners from JENGbA, the family led national campaign, believe there are likely more women whose experiences are yet to be uncovered.

Joint enterprise is a set of legal principles grounded in common law and originating from Victorian times. Its use has re-emerged in the past 30 years, allowing multiple individuals to be convicted for one offence even where the roles of secondary parties are marginal, or evidence of their foresight is uncertain. Stories of Injustice offers an academic analysis of how and why women are convicted in joint enterprise trials.

The evidence points to the significance of Police and Crown Prosecutors across the country charging women in these cases with limited evidence, instead relying on inference of what they knew or intended. Ignoring multiple calls for greater transparency in their use, these charging principles and legal practices remain hidden.

The analysis exposes how across the country prosecutors rely on myths, gendered, class based and racist stereotypes and stigmas to convict women. For example, in one case the judge commented on a female defendant as “a feckless mother of unfortunate children” for whom “the state picks up the pieces of your fecklessness”. The judge made no remark on the parenting of the men in the dock despite two of the three male co-defendants being fathers, one to a child of the female defendant.

This characterisation of women is central to their convictions. Established by prosecution teams, echoed by the media and in some cases the Judge, girls and women are presented as feckless mothers, manipulative love rivals, jilted lovers, or ‘honey traps’. For women from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds these are layered with racist narratives, including tropes about gangs and ‘alternative’ lifestyles.

Like many other women in prison, the accounts of those convicted under joint enterprise captured significant experiences of marginalisation and trauma. In almost one half of the cases there had been a repeated failure by the police and other agencies to protect them from violence as children and adults, or for many women to respond to their health or care needs. Often this important context was minimised or ignored during trials, or worse used to damn women for their silence, fear or inaction.

In one such case the female co-defendant had experienced years of sexual exploitation, but the prosecution argued that she ‘manipulated men for sex’. ‘My abuse was used by the prosecution to paint a bad picture of me. I think also when used by the defence it didn’t help. I just don’t think they believed me.’ (Jenna)

In many cases, women were positioned as the facilitators of violence, their intent is inferred by extensive examination of their lifestyles or relationships. Not on any factual basis of their role or actions. ‘I think I was judged more harshly because I was a woman. Intelligence was equated with ability to deceive and manipulate… and I was judged on my lifestyle and my addiction.’ (Willow)

These women have not engaged in violence, their convictions and life sentences are based not on facts, but on stories that the prosecution construct about the women’s lives.

The report calls for urgent action to prevent this continuing injustice, including:

  • A moratorium on the use of joint enterprise and secondary liability with women.
  • Increased transparency and accountability in the decisions to use secondary liability by the Police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in cases involving female defendants in multi-offender cases.
  • The evidence on the use of joint enterprise with women defendantsto be scrutinised by a Parliamentary Committee with appropriate jurisdiction, alongside a ‘People’s Panel’ of relevant experts and interested parties.
  • The removal of existing barriers to legal appeals for those women currently in prison where there is a very real possibility of a miscarriage of justice – including the incoherent ‘substantial injustice test’ and the barriers to accessing transcripts of trials to support out of time appeals.

Ultimately, the research found that the current criminal justice system is inadequate in ensuring justice and accountability, addressing harm and preventing further violence.

Campaigners calls for an immediate end of the use of joint enterprise for women defendants, and in the longer-term the evidence demands a push beyond legal reform to a reimagining of what the role of the state can and should be in delivering justice for women.

The following organisations join the calls to action outlined in the report:

  • Women in Prison
  • Centre for Women’s Justice
  • Centre for Crime and Justice Studies
  • APPEAL

Gloria Morrison, JENGbA campaign coordinator, said: “JENGbA have fought long and hard to highlight the wrongful convictions of joint enterprise prisoners. We have fought to give them a voice, to reject the rhetoric and flawed evidence of murders by secondary parties being ‘planned’, ‘intended’ and ‘foreseen’. The exploitation of bad law means lazy prosecuting and a pervading corruption by the police and courts. This report shines a clear light on the devastation of families, children’s lives and an inherent distrust in the police by those directly affected. This report gives those women in the criminal justice system that voice and dispels the notion that women convicted of joint enterprise murder are murderers, the fact that they did not murder anyone is the very reason joint enterprise was the tool used to convict them.”

Becky Clarke, co-author of the report and Senior Criminology Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, said: “The experiences of the 109 women examined in our report paint a harrowing picture of injustice which is currently sanctioned by our legal system. These women are wrongfully convicted. We would argue that charging these women for violent crimes they did not commit is neither in the public interest, or delivering justice to victims and communities.

Once in the courtroom, prosecutions rely on myths, stigmas and stereotypes to secure convictions with the defence teams and judges doing little to challenge their use. There are some women caught up in these trials whose own experiences of violence, control, and mental ill health are silenced, the women’s punishment further hides missed opportunities by state agencies to provide care or protection. Any response to this evidence must go beyond legal reform to an end to the use of joint enterprise in these cases, and a wider reimagining of justice for women.”

Kevin Smith, father of Maureen and Kelly Smith (both convicted as secondary parties and sentenced to 23 and 22 year life tariff) said: “Before this happened to our daughters, I believed in the Criminal Justice System and the integrity of the police. Now I have witnessed first-hand how corrupt it is. I no longer trust anyone, particularly the police. There was a time when you were innocent until proven guilty – my girls were assumed guilty. They had to try to prove their innocence, amidst a court where witnesses and officers blatantly lied and were encouraged to do so by the Prosecution to get a ‘result’.

We lost our two daughters to the prison system for a crime that neither of them committed. My wife and I, married for 45 years, had to take on the care of our four grandchildren then aged 15, 13, 7 and 3. It changed all our lives. We were hounded from our home because the press repeatedly kept printing our address. My wife died of what I believe was a broken heart four years into Maureen and Kelly’s Life sentences. We can’t accept what has happened to them, we hope that others will see this new evidence and see the deep injustice of joint enterprise.”

JENGbA Women

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