BBC News

Some England riot sentences 'too severe'

media captionJohn 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."

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".

image captionPerry 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.

image captionCroydon 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.