Met denies riot custody report

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The Independent Online

Scotland Yard today denied claims that officers were ordered to keep every riot suspect behind bars.

The force also refuted reports that chiefs said none of those arrested over the widespread violence should be let off with a caution.

The Guardian said it had seen a leaked document entitled "Operation Withern: prisoner processing strategy" that was circulated to officers investigating the disturbances at their height two weeks ago.

According to the newspaper, the Metropolitan Police devised a policy of holding all people arrested in custody and recommended that courts refuse suspects bail after they were charged.

The claims came as figures showed more than 1,406 people have appeared in court for disorder and looting-related offences.

About 65% of the hearings have been in the capital, with 22% of offenders aged between 10 and 17, latest statistics from the Ministry of Justice show.

The "prisoner processing strategy" leak to the Guardian prompted a clarification from the force today.

"Contrary to reports, at no point does the guidance issued to officers suggest that all persons arrested should be held in custody nor that cautions or other disposals are inappropriate in relation to Operation Withern," it said.

"Where the threshold to charge was not met, 623 people have been bailed to return pending further inquiries, 125 were released with no further action or - in a small number of cases - dealt with by other police disposals including 17 people who were cautioned.

"Reference to cautions and other disposals being inappropriate and the decision to apply to remand suspects in custody is only relevant in cases where there was sufficient evidence available to seek a charge."

The newspaper said the document came into the hands of the solicitors Hodge, Jones and Allen, who have written to the Met informing them they are starting judicial review proceedings of the decision not to bail a client.

The unnamed 25-year-old was arrested for possession of £2,500 of items looted in the riots in south London.

The claims came amid fears over the public cost of the rush to remand suspected rioters in prison.

Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said it has "compounded a long-standing problem of excessive use of custody".

"Concerns had already been raised about the public costs of a measure which in 2009 netted 55,207 people, 11,400 of whom were subsequently acquitted, and high numbers received a community penalty when their cases were finally heard in court," she said.

"The impact on an already overstretched prison service is hard to quantify as sentenced prisoners are shipped from one overcrowded jail to another to make way for remand prisoners who must be held close to local courts.

"Arguably, the legal presumption in favour of bail needs to be strengthened to ensure the proportionate and fair use of custody."

Scotland Yard has now charged more than 1,000 people over the riots in London alone.

A total of 1,920 people have been arrested, with 864 adults and 234 juveniles charged for disorder-related offences.

Prisons Minister Crispin Blunt said jails could cope with the spike in numbers as he defended harsh sentences in the wake of rioting.

"We are completely confident that the prison system and justice system are going to be able to cope with what the police are producing for us," he said.

"This is an exceptional event. There will be a one-off increase in prison numbers as people serve their sentences."

The wave of new inmates will not necessarily change long-term estimates of prison numbers, he added.

"What we have to do is make sure there are prison places for those sent to prison by the courts and we will continue to do that regardless of how many people are sent to prison."