Four-year prison term for mobile phone mugger  

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A hard-line approach to mobile phone robbers began in Britain's courts yesterday when a young man was jailed for four years for attacking a teenager and stealing his £130 handset.

The judge, Valerie Pearlman, told Dean Healey, 23, that the four-year sentence was meant as a "deterrent" to other potential muggers.

The sentence followed guidance on Tuesday by Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, who said "robust" prison sentences were the only way judges could help curb the alarming rise in mobile phone theft. He emphasised that mobile muggers should face minimum jail terms of 18 months and those using violence, five years or more.

Healey is believed to be the first mobile phone mugger to be sentenced since Lord Woolf's comments. The tyre fitter from Brixton, south London, was convicted last month of robbing Lee Staples, 16, in February 2001. He had been remanded for reports until yesterday.

The court had heard that Healey and a friend – who has not been caught – had spotted Lee using his mobile phone and withdrawing money from a cash machine after he left a party.

The robbers approached Lee, who worked at a local newspaper, as he walked along Streatham High Road in south London and started talking to him before punching him in the face and kicking him. The pair stole his Nokia 3310, which he had bought for £130 several weeks earlier. The robbers, who also grabbed his wallet, were chased away when two of Lee's friends arrived at the scene.

Healey, who had previous convictions for aggravated vehicle theft, driving while disqualified and cautions for cannabis possession, was later caught when police found the victim's blood on his clothes.

Healey had been described by character witnesses as honest, trustworthy and conscientious. The pre-sentence report had not put him as a high risk re-offender. But the judge told him: "The sentence I pass is to keep the public protected from you and as a deterrent to show that this type of offence will not be tolerated.

"This is, as the courts repeat, a very prevalent offence, in this case aggravated by the fact there were two of you. I regard this as a bad case of gratuitous street violence on a younger man," she added.

Healey will not be considered for parole until he has served at least half the jail term.

Speaking after the sentencing, Lee said: "It is great it is all over. When I am out I look over my shoulder a lot. I cannot walk off on my own. I am much more careful about where I use my mobile. I hope this will act as a deterrent and I hope people will think twice about what they are doing."

Lee's mother, Lorraine Crawley, said she was shocked at the severity of the sentence. "Maybe it will deter other people," she said. "Lee is much more withdrawn since this happened and always goes out with others now."

Lord Woolf said on Tuesday – as he increased the sentences given to two teenagers who had stolen phones – that the muggers had to understand "they are going to be punished severely and custodial sentences will be the only option available to the courts, unless there are very exceptional circumstances. This will apply irrespective of the age of the offender and irrespective of whether the offender has previous convictions."

He also joined the police in calling on calling on telephone manufacturers to make mobiles less attractive to thieves by improving security measures. More than 700,000 mobiles were stolen last year from victims aged 11 and over. There has been a particular problem in London where about half of all street crimes involve the theft of mobiles.

But Harry Fletcher of the probation officers' union Napo sounded a warning over Lord Woolf's comments. "This sentence moves mobile phone theft up the sentencing tariff to place it alongside a sexual assault or grievous bodily harm," he said.

"Are these more serious offences to get even higher sentences, which would play havoc on the prison population, already at a record high? Or will mobile phone theft have to be more carefully defined?"

"Judges would have to make clear that these longer sentences are being applied to the serious cases where there is serious harm caused to the victim. In other words, it is the harm to the individual that is being punished rather then just the phone theft."