While, the riots may have left our streets, the fallout has well and truly taken over our courtrooms. By Tuesday evening some 1,300 people had been brought before the courts, with 64% of these being remanded in custody. This itself is a staggering figure, made even more noteworthy when you consider that in 2010 only 10% of people were remanded at magistrates courts for serious offences – the full list of cases and convictions so far.
This highlights one of two growing concerns in the aftermath of the riots. For one, the perpetrators are being punished far more harshly than they would be for committing a similar crime at any other time. In fact, an independent analysis by The Guardian has revealed that convicted rioters are receiving sentences 25% longer than usual. Facts such as this show there is a real sense of retribution in the air, with the Government undoubtedly attempting to influence the judicial process, determined to prove the courts will not go soft on those involved.
The second major concern is the disparities that seem to be emerging in much of the sentencing. It’s true that every crime has a different background, a different set of circumstances and a different person at the helm, but in this unique incident of mass crime, where cases are so easily comparable, the courts should be sending fair and consistent messages.
Take the example of Nicolas Robinson from south-east London. Nicolas’ heinous crime was stealing a £3.50 case of water from a Lidl supermarket. Obviously, partaking in any incident of thievery is wrong, and so on… however, Nicolas has received a six-month prison sentence for his act. He had no prior criminal record and pleaded guilty to his crime. Hardly the hardened criminal or ‘youth’ looting and burning down Foot Locker.
But perhaps as Eric Pickles, Communities Secretary, said, “We need to understand that people for a while thought that this was a crime without consequence – we cannot have people being frightened in their beds, frightened in their own homes for their public safety.” Pickles could be right, a huge deterrent may act to stop a similar event happening in the future. Although, this does not explain the huge variations that we have witnessed in some of the sentencing.
For example, while Nicolas got six months for stealing £3.50 of bottled water, David Atto, who like Nicolas pleaded guilty and had no prior convictions, was sentenced to a day in custody for stealing two Burberry T-shirts, worth around £60. It’s only natural to question how these two acts warrant such different punishments.
Claims such as those made by Jeremy Dein QC, who suggested sentences are as consistent as they can be, seem difficult to comprehend with such an obvious example of inconsistency staring you in the face. But as Mr. Dein points out, “Judges and magistrates are individuals, and there will always be a margin of difference between them.” Again, this is a valid argument, but in allowing such disparities in sentencing our justice system is failing many individuals, who fair enough should have known better but hardly warrant major constraints placed upon their future lives. After all, it’s common knowledge that, a criminal record can severely limit your future prospects from employment, to housing, to education, a person becomes limited in what they can aspire to do, regardless of the regret they feel for their actions.
This brings me to the cases of Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, who were both sentenced to four-years in prison for inciting riots through Facebook despite the fact that neither of these riots actually happened. As Alan Travis, The Guardian’s home affairs editor, points out many do not even realise this to be a crime.
It’s important to contextualise this, in fact as Travis notes, in 2010 to receive a four-year sentence an individual would’ve had to kidnap somebody to be sentenced to 47 months in prison, killed someone while drink driving for 45 months or carried out a sexual assault for 48 months. Somehow the ‘incitement’ to riot, without any level of success pales in comparison to the real crimes committed and punished every day.
The courts have an important and necessary duty to stay level headed in the aftermath of these riots. They must not and cannot heed to pressure from the Government to imprison every individual guilty of the most negligible incident during the riots, nor must they react to calls from those who would like perpetrators hung, drawn and quartered. The public can afford to be emotional, the courts must be rational. We as a society have consented to the courts being our moral level head, able to see beyond the emotional and free from the prejudice that blights many of our perceptions. If they choose to abandon this responsibility, we are going to end up with countless individuals sentenced to serious prison sentences for minor crimes.
Regardless of this, it will be interesting to see how these court cases develop, whether the eye for an eye mood will subside and how many of these severe sentences will eventually be overturned. But fair and proper sentencing now will better facilitate the rebuilding process for our cities and our country as a whole, and perhaps with greater hindsight we can begin to truly understand why these riots happened in the first place. However, if we continue to punish with irrational minds, this is a privilege we shall not be afforded.