London – The handing down of tough sentences such as four years in prison for trying to organise a riot via Facebook has triggered alarm in Britain that the government’s crackdown over last week’s unrest might be too harsh.
The Conservative Party has promised tough action following four nights of violence in London and other cities in order to mend what it has described as Britain’s “broken society”.
Civil liberties groups, legal experts and some politicians say, however, that disproportionate sentencing could only fuel a sense of injustice.
“There’s no doubt that in certain circumstances a firm sentence is required,” said John Cooper, a senior crime and civil liberties barrister.
“What concerns me is that the whole range of the sentencing process has been unduly and disproportionately cranked up . . . influenced implicitly or explicitly by public opinion.”
In London, more than 1,000 people have been charged with crimes connected to the riots, which also spread to Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol.
It was reported yesterday that a young man had been given a four-year jail term for setting up a page on social networking site Facebook calling on people to riot in his home town. Another young man received the same sentence for a similar offence elsewhere.
No riots broke out in the areas the men came from, and one media report said one of the young men had woken with a hangover the next day, deleted the web page and apologised.
“It’s very tempting for everybody to get carried away with the rhetoric and saying we should round up these monsters and deal with them draconically. What you’re going to get if you start sentencing disproportionately is all sorts of anomalies,” said Roger Smith, director of law reform group Justice.
He compared the young men’s four-year prison term to a likely two years for breaking someone’s leg in an assault.
Media outlets reported one man had been jailed for six months for stealing bottled water worth £3.50 (€4) from a looted supermarket.
Britain’s Criminal Bar Association said while it would be wrong to punish all crimes harshly just because they were committed during the riots, judges and magistrates should be allowed to give higher sentences for a crime depending on the context in which it was committed.
“Judges are entitled to conclude that these crimes have a number of aggravating features, born from the circumstances of the case, which mean that the sentences can and should be higher,” the body’s vice-chairman, Max Hill, said in a statement.
But others argue that harsh sentencing for less serious crimes devalues punishments for more serious offences.
The Conservatives have defended the harsh sentencing, saying the sentences should act as a deterrent to others. But the Liberal Democrats argue that for less serious crimes they advocate punishments such as helping to repair riot damage and being forced to meet victims of the disorder.
(The Irish Times, 18th August 2011)