Women are being jailed for life for violent crimes they did not commit under unfair laws, a report has found.
The study, carried out by Manchester Metropolitan University, unearthed new evidence revealing at least 109 women have been sentenced to long or even life prison sentences under laws called joint enterprise.
Researchers found prosecutors around the UK use “gendered, class-based and racist stereotypes and stigmas” to prosecute women despite having limited evidence – with the press, prosecution teams, and sometimes even the judge, presenting girls and women as “feckless mothers, manipulative love rivals, or jilted lovers”.
The study, which is the first of its kind, found the majority of women had convictions for serious violent offences, with over three-quarters convicted for murder or manslaughter offences.
The woman or girl did not use a deadly weapon in any of the cases, while women partook in no violence whatsoever in 90 per cent of cases.
Researchers found women were not even present at the scene in half of the cases – with the police and crown prosecutors using guesswork to make assumptions about how much women knew about the case and what their intentions were.
Kevin Smith, the father of Maureen and Kelly Smith, who were both convicted as secondary parties and sentenced to 23 and 22-year life tariffs, 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 the system 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 had to take on the care of our four grandchildren then aged 15, 13, seven and three.
“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.”
Mr Smith said he was unable to “accept” what has happened to his daughters and he is hopeful this new report will make people understand the “deep injustice of joint enterprise”.
A 2016 Supreme Court ruling found the law had “taken a wrong turn” when it comes to joint enterprise but the legal principle, which arose in the Victorian era, continues to be used. It effectively enables numerous people to be convicted for one offence.
“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* said.
Jenna* added: “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".
The report includes highly distressing stories about the experiences of these women - with the youngest girl being charged at 13 years old and the oldest woman currently being 68 years old.
Researchers warned the use of joint enterprise in England and Wales remains hidden and there are women who have been convicted via this law whose stories are yet to be revealed.
Becky Clarke, the report’s co-author who is a 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.”
The female co-defendant in one case had suffered years of sexual exploitation yet the prosecution claimed she had “manipulated men for sex”, researchers said.
Gloria Morrison, of JENGbA, who were involved in the report, said the campaign group has battled "long and hard” to shine a light on the wrongful convictions of joint enterprise inmates.
She added: “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.”
Campaigners are demanding the immediate end of the use of joint enterprise for women defendants and have the backing of leading charities in the sector such as Women in Prison, Centre for Women’s Justice, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies and APPEAL.
It comes after a recent study, carried out by the Safe Homes for Women Leaving Prison initiative, warned a failing system is resulting in thousands of women being released from jails with just £46, a plastic bag, and nowhere to live.
Frontline service providers have frequently warned that women in prison are often the victims of more serious offences than those for which they have been convicted. A previous report from the Prison Reform Trust found 80 per cent of women in jail were there for non-violent offences.
A spokesperson for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) said: “It is right that those who assist or encourage someone to commit a violent crime are also prosecuted and punished.
"However, prosecutors assess the evidence against each individual and have to prove to a jury beyond reasonable doubt that a defendant is guilty. Case law has clarified what the prosecution must prove regarding intention and our legal guidance on this is publicly available. Each convicted defendant also has a right of appeal”.
A National Police Chiefs’ Council spokesperson said they were “aware” of the report and would “consider” it.
The spokesperson added: “The role of the police is to investigate crime, and officers do this by building a file of evidence that is put before the court.
"It is for the courts to decide how this evidence is applied in accordance with the relevant law, and whether it is sufficient to secure a conviction. Serious crimes are investigated with the utmost rigour and professionalism to help the courts ensure that justice is done. Each convicted defendant also has a right of appeal.”
*Willow and Jenna’s names have been changed to protect their identity