Sentencing after the riots

By Alexander Bryan

As dust settled over the riot-stricken streets of English cities, chaos reigned in the courts. The result of the riots was clear; over 2,770 people have been arrested in connection with the riots. By Tuesday afternoon, 1,277 had appeared in court. The pace of action by the judicial system has been commendable.

However, with speed often comes recklessness. Over the past week, there have been a number of entirely disproportionate sentences handed out to those committing crimes which in any other circumstance would be deemed low-level. On the 11th August, Nicolas Robinson was sentenced to 6 months in prison for stealing a £3.50 bottle of water from Lidl. He had no previous convictions and showed a great deal of remorse.

Now there are Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan. These men created Facebook events encouraging people to go out and riot. Blackshaw was the only person who turned up at the designated meeting place (other than the police) and Sutcliffe-Keenan was drunk, removing the ‘joke’ page the next day. They were both sentenced to 4 years in prison.

These men made a mistake but they are not dangerous to the public, nor themselves.  Yet they have been given prison sentences which may well turn them into hardened criminals. A prison sentence often destroys the good things in a person’s life; they might lose their job, their family and their prospects. These are people who will only become more dangerous in prison.

Of course, the sentences were not about proportionality. The case for long sentences for those involved in the riots is that they will deter people from breaking the law again, and that they should face the consequences of their actions. David Cameron has commended the ‘tough message’ the courts are sending out.  Eric Pickles claimed that ‘people would be rightly alarmed if incitement to riot got off with just a slap on the wrist’.

There are a few mistakes here. Firstly, the notion that it is part of the job of the courts to pander to popular demand is simply nonsense. It might be the case that the public wants tough sentencing, but if we trusted the public to administer just, proportionate sentences for crimes, there would be no need for a judicial system at all. There is a huge and important difference between democracy and mob rule which Pickles and Cameron appear to have forgotten here.

Secondly, these sentences will not deter future law-breaking because for many involved in looting, it was entirely opportunistic and impulsive. Much of the outrage and shock expressed this week is due to the fact that England hasn’t seen riots on this scale for a generation. Did anyone decide against rioting because of the severe sentences handed out after the 1981 or 2001 riots? Of course not; deterrence only works if that crime is one which is common and pre-meditated. Setting high sentences in extraordinary circumstances in a system which relies on precedent is dangerous, as these sentences could eventually be given to those who commit the same crimes in ordinary circumstances.

Courts should not be trying to send a ‘tough message’ to people involved in criminal behaviour. They should be trying to administer justice. The essence of justice is proportionality, and this has been cheerily tossed aside by politicians who seek the adulation of the public, and judges who, as Paul Mendelle QC (former chair of the Criminal Bar Association) put it, ‘in purporting to reflect the public mood […] hand out sentences which are too long and harsh.’

It is clearly not a healthy state of affairs when the same punishment can be handed out to someone who stole a £3.50 bottle of water and someone who kept a 21 year old woman as a slave. While Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan have 4 year sentences, so does Lila Bernadette Cartwright, who was trafficking £8,000 worth of heroin.

When London, Manchester and Birmingham were aflame, many watched on and for a few hours thought that what they were watching was not simply rioting, but the fall of law and order in this country. The inability of the police to stop the crimes and the seemingly remote possibility of catching those responsible angered and scared almost all who saw it.

That people want revenge is understandable. But the courts must be proportionate. It might not be pleasant to see looters walk out of court with a community order or probationary sentence, but that is justice. By disregarding the usual sentences for these crimes, the courts (and politicians who encourage them) do more to undermine law and order than any rioter, as they sacrifice regular and appropriate sentencing at the altar of public opinion.

Those calling for tough sentences this week have attempted to portray themselves as the brave defenders of law and order, calling for rioters to face what is coming to them. In truth, they are bowing to populism. To defend law and order is to defend it from all sides, not simply the one that looks the most threatening.

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