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Thursday, August 18, 2011 

2031 here we come.

Much as this blog has always been against the tendency to split the whole population of a nation down the middle into two distinct groups in the past, I'm finding it hard to see such nuances when it comes to the sentences given to the "Facebook rioters". You have those who think that four years in prison for making events pages on a social networking website for riots which were never going to take place is ridiculously harsh, and then you have vindictive wankers who have obviously never done anything stupid in their entire lives who think it's perfectly acceptable.

The ostensible reason why Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan have received what seem such disproportionate terms of imprisonment is that inciting a riot, even if it doesn't take place or was never intended as anything other than a joke, is regarded as a more serious offence than the violent disorder which would result from it. This is underlined by the ranges set out by Judge Andrew Gilbart in his remarks before sentencing the first batch of those who pleaded guilty to taking part in the rioting in Manchester and Salford: he argues "that the context in which the offences of the night of 9th of August were committed takes them completely outside the usual context of criminality", and so feels likewise that the normal sentencing guidelines "are of much less weight in the context of the current case, and can properly be departed from". His starting point for "organisers of riots or commerical burglaries" after trial is 8 years upwards.

Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan then if anything seem to have got off relatively lightly, such is the climate that has descended. Judge Elgar Edwards, who sentenced both men, described their offences as happening at a time of "collective insanity", before going to err, describe what Blackshaw did as an "evil act". Perhaps though we shouldn't be so surprised: we've seen with the #twitterjoketrial that judges and the authorities don't take kindly to what seem to online dwellers like ourselves self-evidently mocking messages, regardless of the hints of menace they have in them. This was of a different scale, and added to the general level of unease which communities all around the country were going through, with the police turning up at Blackshaw's proposed location, yet it's both the lack of consistency between the terrible crimes you can commit and get 4 years for and the knowledge that there were plenty of other people out there on Facebook and Twitter spreading rumour and panic causing much the same fear and uncertainty without so much as being lectured for doing so that makes it stick in the craw so much.

Not that there's much consistency either in the sentences which have been handed down for those taking part in the actual looting. Gilbart gave Linda Mary Boyd, the woman who picked up a bag containing stolen alcohol, cigarettes and a mobile phone ten months suspended for two years. He judged her to be unlike the others he was sentencing, despite Boyd having a long record of petty offending. Such considerations were not given by Judge Robert Atherton, who sets out how he "respectfully agrees with the ranges" outlined by Gilbart, to Conrad McGrath, a 21-year-old student who previously seems to have had an entirely clean record. Arrested after being seen in a looted Tesco Express, Atherton sentenced him to 16 months for burglary (PDF). Even when taking everything into account, including McGrath's stupidity and his role in the wider unrest, it seems an overly harsh punishment for a first-time offender who didn't actually steal anything. A twelve month suspended sentence, which involved perhaps a curfew and also a form of restorative justice would surely both serve the stated parameters of "sending a message" while also acting as an effective punishment.

The Heresiarch asks:

That being the case, is it really fair to hand out exemplary sentences to rioters who were merely acting in accordance with human nature, who are not actually violent criminals? And is such sentencing policy good either for them or for society?

He goes on to suggest it is. I'm not so sure. While the public mood is undoubtedly in favour of the harsh penalties being handed down, and some of those involved truly are deserving of what they have coming their way, our prisons are not exactly renowned for their work in reducing recidivism, while the current overcrowding is hardly going to improve the conditions for those first time offenders finding themselves in a circle of hell as a result of a few hours of madness. It's also dubious that the fear of such punishments can ever overcome the peer pressure of the mob when you're caught up in it.

Moreover, all the signs are that last week's events are another one-off which we'll end up looking back at in a similar way to the race riots 10 years ago and the disturbances in the 80s: memories fade quickly, while the young often have only the most superficial knowledge of events during their early childhood. It's safe to bet that plenty of those under 21 had very little to no knowledge whatsoever of the Toxteth, Brixton and Broadwater Farm riots of the 80s. Exemplary sentences only stay that way as long as they can be recalled. Come the 2031 riots, those on all sides will doubtless make the same arguments all over again.

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...And when the courts are overwhelmed by the inevitable appeals and can't process new cases, will The Sun commenters understand that this is a consequence of the sentencing policy they applauded so noisily?

There's a poster on there called 'Geteducated who doesn't seem to understand the separation of powers. Irony innit.

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