Justice and Prisons After the Riots in England

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The widespread looting and violence which scarred parts of English cities last week has led to a predictably harsh response from the authorities. At the time of writing about 1300 people have been charged with offences allegedly committed during the disturbances. Over half have been remanded into custody by Magistrates until sentences can be imposed by the Crown Courts. The sentences that have already been handed down appear to be well in excess of   “the going rate” for particular offences.

First offenders have been sent to prison for minor crimes on the margins of the rioting – 6 months prison for a young man who took  a bottle of water from a looted store on his way home; a mother-of-two  who slept through the riots but accepted as a gift a looted pair of shorts has received  five months in jail. Two young adults of previous good character received 4 years for inciting disorder on Facebook although no trouble occurred as a result. Many are concerned that these and other sentences show a lack of proportionality  and there have been reports of Courts being encouraged to ignore sentencing guidelines in order to pass exemplary deterrent sentences.

There are good reasons to be concerned about what the courts are doing. If sentences do not properly reflect the culpability of an offender and the harm they have caused they are inherently unjust. They run the risk of fuelling rather than overcoming the sense of alienation and disengagement from society which characterises many but not all of those involved in the unrest. As a result of disproportionately heavy sentences, the prison population which reached its highest ever level last week looks set to soar in a climate of budget cuts which are bound to impact on prison regimes.

There has been talk of offering opportunities for offenders to undertake forms of reparative activities in their communities once they come out of prison. For many of those least heavily involved and the youngest offenders, this could surely have been the first priority rather than an afterthought, an alternative rather than an addition to prison. The Sentencing Council which might usefully have  provided guidance to that effect  has been completely silent .

In its absence , we are seeing a substantial increase in the use and scope of imprisonment. There is a danger that this will not be limited to responses to the events of last week. History suggest that traumatic  national incidents can have a longer lasting impact – the murder of a  two year old James Bulger in 1992 triggered a decade long crackdown on juvenile crime . An inflationary impact on sentencing of all kinds cannot be ruled out in the coming months and years .

There is a more worrying impact on the rule of law. We rightly expect judicial institutions to do justice independently of the executive, consistently and fairly. If  they are  prepared to “tear up the rule book” they are arguably suffering the same loss of reason which no doubt overtook many of those whom they are sentencing.


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