The courts must clamp down on mobile phone muggers by sending them to prison for up to five years, the Lord Chief Justice said yesterday.
Lord Woolf warned that "robust" prison sentences were the only way judges could help curb a steep rise in mobile phone thefts. At the same time, he urged manufacturers to make their products less attractive to criminals.
Lord Woolf, the most senior judge in England and Wales, said street robberies involving mobile phones were particularly worrying because of their effect on the victims, the public and the criminal justice system.
In a recent spate of disturbing cases, a 19-year-old girl was shot in the head by a robber who stole her mobile phone in London on New Year's Day. The Home Office estimates that last year more than 700,000 mobiles were stolen from those aged 11 and over.
Lord Woolf, increasing sentences given to two teenagers who had stolen phones, said such criminals would only avoid jail in exceptional circumstances. "This will apply irrespective of the age of the offender and irrespective of whether the offender has previous convictions," he said.
The lowest appropriate sentence for phone robbery was 18 months, but up to three years would be imposed for offences where no weapons were used, and up to five years or more for armed robbers, he said.
Lord Woolf, sitting in the Court of Appeal with two other judges, allowed a referral by the Attorney General on the grounds that the punishment meted in two separate cases was "unduly lenient". The court increased a six-month detention sentence on Adrian Lobban, 19, from Manchester, to three and a half years. Lobban and two accomplices robbed two 16-year-olds of a mobile phone at knifepoint in Oldham town centre.
Christopher Sawyers, 19, from Warley, West Midlands, who had been put on probation after pleading guilty to three robberies, was given two and a half years' detention.
Lord Woolf said such robberies, in which the victims were mainly vulnerable teenagers or elderly people, were undermining the criminal justice system.
Statistics showed that 70 per cent of adults in the UK used mobiles, and ownership among younger people was even higher. The risk of phone theft among children was five times greater than for adults.
"Faced with that background, the courts have no alternative but to adopt a robust sentencing policy towards those who commit these offences, said Lord Woolf.
In a third case, Stephen Quanne, 17, of Bradford, who had threatened a 14-year-old paper boy with a claw hammer before stealing his mobile phone, appealed against his four-year sentence. Quanne had been told by the judge who sentenced him that the term was intended as a deterrent. Lord Woolf said that while the principle of deterrence was appropriate, four years was "somewhat long", and reduced the sentence to three years.
Franklin Sinclair, senior partner at Tuckers Solicitors, the largest criminal law firm in England and Wales, said he was very worried by the judgment because it would encourage youth courts to send more teenagers to the Crown Court to impose longer sentences.
Mr Sinclair said he had recently represented a teenage phone mugger who had used a knife but was only given a community service order. "In some cases, like this one, there will be exceptional circumstances which should allow the courts to decline to impose a prison sentence," Mr Sinclair said.
But Rodney Warren, chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, welcomed the judge's comments, which he said not only clarified the law but would deter people who thought mobile phone mugging was not a serious offence.Reuse content