'Too tough sentences' spark warning

Jailing those involved in the riots for longer than they deserve risks undermining confidence in the justice system, lawyers and campaigners said today.





The warning that the rush to send out a tough message and to make an example of those involved in violence was leading to "some very bad sentences" came as members of the coalition Government appeared split over the issue.



Prime Minister David Cameron defended a court's decision to jail two men who tried to incite riots on Facebook for four years, even though the riots they tried to plan never happened, but senior Liberal Democrats urged caution.



Human rights lawyers and criminal barristers also warned against a "knee-jerk response" by the courts over the violence and looting following "the public's anger and the politicians' rhetoric".



But Mr Cameron said: "What happened on our streets was absolutely appalling behaviour and to send a very clear message that it's wrong and won't be tolerated is what the criminal justice system should be doing.



"They decided in that court to send a tough sentence, send a tough message and I think it's very good that courts are able to do that."



Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes admitted there were "two strands of political opinion" in the coalition and so there were bound to be "different voices" on what response there should be to the riots.



"The people who have criminal offences can expect no mercy," he told Sky News.



"But I hope the courts will look more sympathetically on a youngster who has never had a criminal offence and may have been swept up into the system."



Former Lib Dem leader Sir Menzies Campbell also took a swipe at Tories who have been demanding tough prison sentences for rioters.



"With all due deference to the Prime Minister, politicians should not be either cheering nor booing in the matter of sentencing," he said.



"It is an important part of our constitutional principles that political influence is not directed at the judicial system."



Leading criminal barrister John Cooper QC warned that judges and magistrates had a duty "not to be influenced by angry Britain", describing some of the sentences handed down already as "disproportionate and somewhat hysterical".



"What's happening here is they're being unduly increased to appease public anger and, as far as the magistrates are concerned, potentially influenced by the views of politicians."



He added that the divergence from normal sentencing procedures was reflected in Ministry of Justice figures which showed two in three people charged over the riots and looting have been remanded in custody, compared with a remand rate of just one in 10 last year for those charged with serious offences.



Sally Ireland, director of criminal justice policy at the Justice campaign group, also said several cases appeared "very much outside the normal range", adding that giving rioters disproportionate sentences to make an example out of them could "compromise confidence in the justice system".



She pointed to that of 23-year-old college student Nicolas Robinson, of Borough, south east London, who, despite having no criminal record, was jailed for six months on Thursday for stealing a £3.50 case of bottled water from a Lidl supermarket in Brixton, south London, during a night of rioting.



Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns for the Howard League for Penal Reform, added that the rush to send a message out was leading to "some very bad sentences, which will be overturned on appeal".



And Emily Butselaar, of the Index on Censorship campaign group, said disproportionate sentences and the Government's rhetoric on banning social media during unrest were "undermining our international reputation as a bastion of free expression and justice".



Max Hill QC, vice-chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, added that higher courts would uphold harsh sentences if they were justified, but in others there would be a "thorough review".



The Sentencing Council, which aims to promote greater consistency in sentencing in England and Wales, denied reports that its senior judges were "split" over the tough sentences.



"The council has not met since the riots and there has been no discussion regarding the appropriate sentencing of rioters," a spokesman said, adding that the Government has not asked it to amend its guidance to deal with future unrest.



The Crown Prosecution Service defended the tough punishments in the Facebook case, saying the web pages caused "significant panic and revulsion" to the people of Cheshire, while Cheshire Assistant Chief Constable Phil Thompson said they sent "a very clear signal in terms of the deterrent effect".



Jordan Blackshaw, 20, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, appeared at Chester Crown Court yesterday after police discovered Facebook pages created by the men which urged rioting in their home towns.



Blackshaw, of Northwich, Cheshire, set up an event entitled "Smash Down Northwich Town", and Sutcliffe-Keenan, of Warrington, created the page "Let's Have a Riot in Latchford".



Neither Blackshaw nor Sutcliffe-Keenan were accused of rioting or looting themselves, yet the pair were given the lengthiest sentences so far in relation to the nationwide disorder for intentionally encouraging others.

PA

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
File: James Woods attends the 52nd New York Film Festival at Walter Reade Theater on September 27, 2014
peopleActor was tweeting in wake of NYPD police shooting
Sport
Martin Skrtel heads in the dramatic equaliser
SPORTLiverpool vs Arsenal match report: Bandaged Martin Skrtel heads home in the 97th-minute
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'