Leading article: There can be no place in justice for political expediency

Ministry of Justice sentencing figures support the idea there has been a sharp change in practice

Share
Related Topics

The post-mortem on last week's riots quickly divided opinion between those who saw inequality and deprivation as the prime causes and those who joined the Prime Minister in blaming moral decay and personal irresponsibility. Now, as the numbers appearing before the courts pass from the hundreds into the thousands, the judges' sentencing is opening up a similar divide. Even as the public overwhelmingly applauds the courts for "finally" getting to grips with law-breakers, human rights campaigners and defence lawyers cry foul. From the cases concluded so far, there would seem to be, at very least, grounds for concern.

Two decisions have drawn particular criticism: the four-year prison terms imposed on two men convicted of using Facebook to incite riots in the north of England – riots in fact that never took place – and the six-month sentence for a man found guilty of taking £3.50 worth of bottled water from a Lidl store in London. The objections in both cases are similar. First, that the sentences, in absolute terms, are out of all proportion to the offence. Second, that the equivalent offences committed before last week would have been treated far more leniently. And third, that while sentencing of rioters has so far has veered towards the strict, it has also been inconsistent.

Certainly, some of the inconsistencies in sentencing seem glaring, particularly for theft and handling stolen goods – from one day to many months in prison. And while disparities are not unusual between individual cases and jurisdictions, the discrepancies in some riot-related sentences appear unusually wide.

The bigger question, however, relates to the pattern of judgments, which suggests that offences committed during the riots are attracting far tougher sentences than similar offences would have done before. Initial Ministry of Justice figures, showing that two-thirds of those appearing before the courts were refused bail, compared with only 10 per cent over the whole of last year, support the idea there has been a sharp change in practice. Either that, or – as some lawyers argue – the context of the riots is being, and should be, treated as a factor that seriously augments the gravity of the crime.

There are claims, fiercely denied, that the upper echelons of the judiciary, or even ministers, ordered especially severe treatment for rioters, with a view to deterring others and assuaging public anger. As Dr David Thomas argues in The Independent today, deterrence is a legitimate element in sentencing – as, for the sake of maintaining public confidence, is recognition of the national mood. But any directive that changed longstanding sentencing practices would be the start of a slippery slope towards the politicisation of the courts.

The legitimacy of the most swingeing sentences is likely to be tested at appeal – with the risk, of course, that courts could be tied up with post-riot challenges for years. But what appears to be a sharp change in bailing and sentencing practice, plus the speed with which riot cases are being processed through the courts, should sound alarms here and now. It is not only hard cases that make bad law, but apparently easy cases that are fast-tracked against a backdrop of public indignation. In a law-governed state, justice has to be the same for everyone – rioters, too.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny
 

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own