LONDON — The British government has acknowledged, apparently for the first time, that a key prosecution tactic may disproportionately be jailing Black people. But a government minister told lawmakers that prosecutors were only following the law, not considering race.
At issue is a legal doctrine known as “joint enterprise,” which gives prosecutors the power to charge multiple people with a single crime. Hundreds of people have been sent to prison for life for murders committed by others.
A Supreme Court ruling in 2016 was expected to curtail the use of joint enterprise, but a New York Times investigation showed this month that prosecutors had actually been using the tactic more frequently since the ruling, even as the homicide rate remained largely stable.
Black defendants are three times as likely to be prosecuted in such cases as white defendants are, data obtained by The Times showed.
“The government does recognize that convictions based on joint enterprise appear, based on some studies, to affect some groups disproportionately,” Edward Argar, a justice minister and Conservative lawmaker, said in Parliament on Tuesday.
He added, though, that prosecutors “can only apply the law when making charging decisions, and race or ethnicity should play no part in any such decision-making.”
Civil liberties groups, lawyers and academics have argued for years that prosecutors were using the tactic too broadly. It became notorious through several widely publicized cases. In one, a teenager was imprisoned and then deported for a murder he did not witness, much less carry out. In another, a partly blind 16-year-old, who said he could not even see his friends attacking someone, received a life sentence for murder.
“For the government to accept joint enterprise disproportionately affects Black people for the first time is huge,” said Jan Cunliffe, from the advocacy group Joint Enterprise Not Guilty By Association. “It vindicates all we have been saying for over a decade.”
Mr. Argar was responding to a question from Kate Osamor, a member of Parliament from the opposition Labour Party, who pressed the government on why it had not published data on joint enterprise cases despite a directive from a parliamentary inquiry nearly a decade ago.
“It is because the data would clearly show how joint enterprise has been used to target Black people disproportionately, and young Black men in particular.” Ms Osamor said.
Under the joint enterprise doctrine, one person may have physically committed the crime, but associates can also be found guilty. The getaway driver in a robbery is a classic example.
Often, though, the roles are less clear. A year after the Supreme Court ruling, 11 teenagers from Manchester, England, were imprisoned for a stabbing — even though the judge acknowledged that he did not know if they had all participated in the attack. A young man with autism received a life sentence for a stabbing carried out by someone else while, he said, he sat in a car watching a music video.
Defense lawyers, academics and activists have long argued that joint enterprise cases were unfair and racially biased. But until now, there has been scant data to test that argument — because the authorities have failed to record it.
Max Hill, the head of the public prosecutor for England and Wales, the Crown Prosecution Service, said in a statement that the agency was “independent, fair and objective” and that it took seriously “the risks of disproportionately targeting any group.”
“The C.P.S. does not prosecute people for murders they did not commit by misusing the ‘joint enterprise’ legal doctrine.” he said. “It does not target Black people. Nor does it label defendants ‘gang’ members without the evidence to do so.”
The prosecution service has said a planned upgrade to its case-management system might allow prosecutors to collect race data. Mr. Argar told lawmakers that he could not provide a timetable for that software upgrade or the release of any data.