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Fears grow over excessive sentencing as cases pile up

As courts struggled to process the cases arising from last week's riots, fears were growing last night that disproportionate sentences were being handed down.

A mother of two was given a five-month sentence yesterday for accepting shorts stolen by someone else. Ursula Nevin, 24, was asleep during the riots, but she took the shorts, which were part of a stash of clothing taken by her flatmate Gemma Corbet from the Vans store.

Greater Manchester Police appeared triumphant at the news, posting on their official Twitter account: "Mum-of-two, not involved in disorder, jailed for FIVE months for accepting shorts looted from shop. There are no excuses!" They later apologised and deleted the message, after widespread criticism.

David Cameron made it clear on Thursday that he wanted tough sentencing for those who had taken part in the disorder. "Anyone charged with violent disorder and other serious offences should expect to be remanded in custody – and anyone convicted should expect to go to jail," he said.

Justice and welfare experts are concerned that draconian sentences could be handed out without due thought. On Thursday a 23-year-old was sent to prison for six months for stealing a £3.50 case of water from Lidl. A 43-year-old is still being held in prison for stealing items worth £1 from a newsagent.

Others believe the courts have not been hard enough – arguing that sentences of a few days, which some people have been given, do not reflect the seriousness of the harm they caused.

City of Westminster Magistrates' Court was in chaos yesterday, with lawyers describing "a complete shit fight" as hearings were rushed through. One said: "I've been here a day, and what with the heavy press presence too, the atmosphere has been even more pressured than usual."