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 1656.

    These sentences are entirely proportionate. The Howard Penal Reform League and others are not in the real world, seeing life as they do from their cosy suburban properties. Giving young men a tap on the wrist for violence against others is a licence for anarchy - it's time to instil more respect for authority - else our society has no chance of survival

  • rate this

    Comment number 1655.

    So having heard reports of 15 year olds making statements like "What they gonna do? Give me an ASBO? I can live with that" the softly softly on crime campaigners are coming out in force to suggest that the sentencing is too harsh...

    What a surprise!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1654.

    People are saying the sentencing is too severe. If this was reversed you would be saying we are being to slack on those convicted. They commited the crime they should pay for thier actions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1653.

    Giving people harsh sentences for the riots is not the right way to go. Putting people away longer than more severe crimes is counter-productive. We need to get back to helping and educating people in these areas instead of just giving handouts then pretending the underclass doesn't exist. The problem goes back generations and it's not getting any better. Society needs to change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1652.

    Whilst I agree that sexual assault etc is not in the same league as the crimes committed by the 'looters' and 'rioters'; I also feel that the sentences being handed out currently are totally justified (what's the difference between plotting to riot and plunder or plotting a terrorist attack? Both harm people and livelihoods).
    Maybe the rioters will be forced to respect people and property now...

  • rate this

    Comment number 1651.

    In context with the complicit support of the government, the banks looted the nation's wealth while destroying countless small businesses and brought the whole economy to its knees in a covert, clean manner, rather like organized crime.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1650.

    Scroll down sheep and read the breaking news that this debacle was designed to (succesfully) distract you all from... the Met officers have been cleared of hacking, right under your very noses!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1649.

    Not only should the sentences be longer, after jail the offenders should do community service; 6am to 6pm, 5 days a week for several months.

    After that we should consider reducing their benifits (to nill if necessary) and then removing their right to a council/ association housing.

    Next time they want to riot they should consider that society will come down on them like a ton of bricks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1648.

    If sentencing had always been like this maybe these events would not have occured. As for too harsh?......nah! 5 weeks for a foam pie to the face? Now that's harsh!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1647.

    its about time we got tough...... stick them all on a prison ship and push it out to sea....nobody would miss these people....they bring nothing but misery to society.... in this case i think retibution IS fitting justice!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1646.

    Yet again a minority come out with a ludicrious response to a situation that could have been far worse. Put deterants in place and the sentences justify what the law abiding people feel towards these people and their actions. The general publics need is to see these idiots treated severely and adequately and if they don't want to be treated this way then act civilised like the majortiy of us do!

  • Comment number 1645.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 1644.

    "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."

    This says a more about puny sentences being given for harsh crimes rather than the strength of this conviction.

    "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime"

  • rate this

    Comment number 1643.

    jmanchester what about the three lads in Brum that died the guy that was stamped to death in London? keep the scum off our streets, no one seriously hurt in manchester but that was just luck. zombiepizza I agree

  • rate this

    Comment number 1642.

    Part of the so-called harsh sentencing is down to the Tories being afraid of what might happen as more cuts etc bite. If they take on powers now against disorder, they'll be able to use those powers against legitimate protesters later. Were the riots a set-up for that sort of thing or to ward off such protests?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1641.

    I wholly concur with the court sentence on these two that were inciting riot on Facebook. My comment perhaps is that 6 years would be fairer bearing in mind they will only serve 50% of their sentence anyway.

    My other point is why do the BBC give headlines to these hand wringing liberals that are already coming out of the woodwork to defend evil rioters?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1640.

    The term 'Bleeding Heart Liberals' springs to mind here.......

  • rate this

    Comment number 1639.

    The Judge was right to hand out this sentence. Everyone knows they will only serve 1/2 of it - if that! If you incite riots and criminal behaviour you should be prepared to face the consequences. We have become a Nation of Me, Me Me! and then the do-gooders want to go easy on wrong-doers. Sometimes I could scream with indignation

  • rate this

    Comment number 1638.

    Good! Serves them right. Hopefully the next time they wiil engage brain before acting, even if they have no conscience of their own. About time our legal system stopped being so wet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1637.

    This govt like previous tory govts only exist to further feather the nests of the rich and privileged.Sadly more riots are inevitable.


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