Some England riot sentences 'too severe'


John Cooper QC told Newsnight's Kirsty Wark: "This sentence in my view is over the top"

MPs and justice campaigners say some of the sentences given to those involved in the riots in England are too harsh.

On Tuesday two men were jailed for four years for using Facebook to incite riots and another was given 18 months for having a stolen TV in his car.

The former chair of the Criminal Bar Association, Paul Mendelle QC, said sentences were too long and harsh.

But Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said tougher sentences would show there were consequences to disorder.

More than 2,770 people have been arrested in connection with last week's riots in a number of English cities.

By Tuesday afternoon, 1,277 suspects had appeared in court and 64% had been remanded in custody. In 2010 the remand rate at magistrates for serious offences was 10%.

On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Police announced that it has charged 1,005 people after 1,733 arrests over the rioting that swept through the capital. The force has a target of 3,000 convictions.

The force's Acting Commissioner Tim Godwin said the investigation was "far from over".

The courts and tribunals service says legal advisers in court have been advising magistrates to "consider whether their powers of punishment are sufficient in dealing with some cases arising from the recent disorder". Magistrates are able to refer cases to crown courts which have tougher sentencing powers.

A spokeswoman from the service said magistrates were independent and did not have to take direction from their legal advisors who are themselves independent of government.

'Wild panic measures'

The former chair of the Criminal Bar Association, Paul Mendelle QC, told BBC 5 live: "When people get caught up and act out of character, in a similar way, there is a danger that the courts themselves may get caught up in a different kind of collective hysteria - I'm not suggesting violence or anything like that - but in purporting to reflect the public mood actually go over the top and hand out sentences which are too long and too harsh."

Riot sentences

  • Anderson Fernandes, 22, was warned by a judge at Manchester Magistrates' Court that he may face jail after he admitted stealing two scoops of ice cream. He will be sentenced next week.
  • Nicolas Robinson, 23, of Borough, south-east London, was jailed for six months for stealing a £3.50 case of water from Lidl supermarket
  • Mother-of-two Ursula Nevin, from Manchester, was jailed for five months for receiving a pair of shorts given to her after they had been looted from a city centre store.

But Mr Pickles told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "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.

"That is why these kind of exemplary sentences are necessary. I think people would be rightly alarmed if that incitement to riot got off with just a slap on the wrist."

Lord McNally, Liberal Democrat Justice Minister, said the courts must operate independently and warned "it's dangerous when politicians try to do the sentencing".

He said politicians make the laws, police do the arresting and judges do the judging and sentencing.

Cheshire men Jordan Blackshaw, 21, of Marston, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, of Warrington, were jailed for four years each after admitting using Facebook to incite disorder, although none actually resulted.

Defence solicitor Chris Johnson said Mr Blackshaw and his family "are somewhat shocked by the sentence and he will be appealing".

The Recorder of Chester, Judge Elgan Edwards, said he hoped the sentences would act as a deterrent to others.

Assistant Chief Constable of Cheshire Police Phil Thompson said it was "easy to understand" the sentence when you consider the impact technology had on the riots.

The Crown Prosecution Service said the offences committed carried maximum sentences of 10 years, but the four-year sentences were the lengthiest related to rioting so far.

Meanwhile a 17-year-old from Suffolk has been banned from using social networking sites for 12 months and ordered to observe a three month overnight curfew for using Facebook to encourage people to riot during last week's disorder.

Labour MP Paul Flynn wrote on his blog that the government was "throwing away sentencing rules".

Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan and Jordan Blackshaw Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan and Jordan Blackshaw were jailed at Chester Crown Court

"How can this make sense? How does it compare with other crimes? What will it do to prison numbers? This is not government. It's a series of wild panic measures seeking to claw back popularity."

Andrew Neilson, of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "A four-year sentence would normally be associated with offences such as holding someone up at knife point, grievous bodily harm, sexual assault, and I'm not sure that the offence in question was really related to those types of offences."

He added that over-sentencing would see more appeals and that the courts and prisons would struggle to cope.

'Sentencing discrepancy'

Leading criminal barrister John Cooper QC said he believed the sentences were "over the top" and were likely to be overturned by the Court of Appeal.

"What we need to remember here is that there's a protocol for sentencing, and there are rules and procedures in sentencing which make them effective and make them fair.

"What we can't do, in my view, in situations like this, is suddenly throw the rule book away simply because there's a groundswell of opinion."

BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman said what people were going to find troubling was the discrepancy in sentencing.

A 15-year-old is arrested and led away in handcuffs by police officers in Brixton Croydon MP Gavin Barwell said his constituents wanted to see the courts get tough on rioters

He said an 18-year-old was imprisoned for one day for stealing two Burberry t-shirts while in another court, a 23-year-old man was sentenced to six months in prison for stealing £3.50 worth of water.

"There is always a discrepancy in sentencing around the country, although we try to make it as consistent as possible. I think this intense, feverish atmosphere that we've seen has magnified that somewhat," he said.

In another case, three men were jailed for up to two years in relation to the disorder in Manchester and Salford on 9 August. David Beswick, 31, Stephen Carter, 26, both from Salford, and Michael Gillespie-Doyle, 18, from Tameside, all pleaded guilty at earlier hearings.

Sitting at Manchester Crown Court, sentencing Judge Andrew Gilbart QC said: "I have no doubt at all that the principal purpose is that the courts should show that outbursts of criminal behaviour like this will be and must be met with sentences longer than they would be if the offences had been committed in isolation."

Beswick was sentenced to 18 months in prison for handling stolen goods.

Our legal correspondent said under normal circumstances Beswick would have been given a mid-range community sentence.

His friend Tony Whitaker said the punishment was disproportionate, given that he had pleaded guilty straight away.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 1636.

    I heard riotors saying they were doing it because they wouldn't get caught; and if they did they'd get away with an ASBO or community service. The sentences have to be tough enough to change that view else it will just happen again.

    Also, if they had given bail they'd have been back on the streets the following night. They had to remand them to get them off the streets and stop it escalating.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1635.

    The issue here is not about the reaction of the courts to the riots and the percieved increase in scale of punishment. The riots have highlighted that the courts/justice system has been hamstrung by the left leaning policies of the last few years, most of the sentencing available to judges has remained the same it has just been an unwillingness to implement the full force of the law by judges.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1634.

    Fully agree with severity of sentences.

    Rioting escalated and copy-cat riots ensued following Tottenham because people saw they could get away with it - i.e. there was insufficient incentive to not riot.

    Severe senteces should serve to provide this incentive and stop such things happening again (on the same scale).

    Overly penalising a few criminals is perfectly justified to prevent recurrence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1633.

    Looking at the headlines it's pretty clear where the BBC stands on sentencing. So much for impartiality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1632.

    Sentancing must be consistant and not be influenced by polititions unless there has been due process with changes to legislation being debated in Parliament. The current dealing with those involved in rioting appears to be about retribution, not punishment. These extreme sentances will not serve to deter, but increase the sense of exclusion by those who feel descriminated against.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1631.

    Whilst I have been pleased that the sentences for adults have gone some way to reflecting the severity of the crimes, the under 18s are still getting off too lightly because they cannot be named and shamed. Surely having your mug in the local paper with your name next to it would act as a deterrant for some of them? That, combined with a jail sentence, hard labour and apologising to the victims.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1630.

    Are the dogooders at it again lets not sit around and say "oh its not bad".YES IT IS , we for too long have accepted and given in,so what it it is too harsh people make choices and they chose to join in ...down to them I'm afraid

  • rate this

    Comment number 1629.

    #1558 - Hopefully that is true. So being just to those who are not organised criminals, rather casual opportunists, would provide us with an opportunity to give them a way out without having to return to life under their influence. The removal of some very influential thugs could be of great benefit to everyone in the community but if we include their victims then we have lost an opportunity.

  • Comment number 1628.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1627.

    "Liberal Democrat MP Tom Brake" Remember this name the next time you choose to vote and choose more wisely.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1626.

    I dont think the punishments meted out are too harsh, I think its time the government allow youths of this country to learn about independency, whereby they develop themselves positively and not expecting govt to meet all their needs. If a youth felt he had a right to loot, then he or she should be ready to face the full force of the law.Being responsible and disciplined should be taught to youths

  • rate this

    Comment number 1625.

    Many of us now feel unsafe where we live and afraid of doing the simple things we used to do, like walking back from the pub at night. For me its not the damage that matters its the impact on normal law abiding poeple who now feel threatened. To prevent crime taking place people need to know the punishement and that they will get caught. So go ahead with tough sentances and tell everyone about it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1624.

    In the good old days the Army would have fired a Volley over their heads, then the next one at the Orchestra stalls.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1623.

    Previous instances of civil disturbance have not had the 'benefit' of social media to organise and instigate violent and criminal behaviour. This new mechanism bypasses the pre-existing constraints of time, distance and association and can reach 000s within seconds. Although possible to investigate it is difficult to prevent and as such poses a danger to us all when used irresponsibly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1622.

    I don't care if it was 'just £3.50 of water' - in the US, looters are shot! Nicolas Robinson should think himself lucky for just having a couple of months in prison to think about his priorities!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1621.

    I don't think the sentences are harsh at all and I think the UK needs to be firmer with sentencing, especially in the aftermath of the riots. If we start being limp about this now, we are just sending out a message to those people who commit crime that it's okay to do it as you won't be punished.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1620.

    Anyone relating bankers to the rioters should maybe do some research, rather than regurgitating all the media babble they've absorbed. Without banks, we would never have had such a prosperous economy in the first place. Banks provide businesses with lines of credit. This incites growth in the economy. The crisis happened due to risks taken by a small number of traders. Don't tarnish them all!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1619.

    Inciters of a riot are its most dangerous component. They are the Hitlers who opened the gates to the mayhem we saw. Let the sentences stand.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1618.

    So we have thousands of people whose intention was to destroy property, hurt people, steal anything in sight, attack the police and spread fear amongst communities so that people are too scared to leave their homes.
    How the hell is ANY punishment too severe?
    Everyone and anyone involved or participating in these riots deserve nothing less than being executed. Then let's see them try again.

  • Comment number 1617.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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