Leading Article: Dickleburgh vigilantes deserve a lighter sentence

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JUDGE John Binns was right to condemn the two Norfolk vigilantes who kidnapped and threatened Gavin Last, a 17-year-old they suspected of theft. But five-year sentences were too severe even as an exemplary punishment.

No one can blame the villagers of Dickleburgh for feeling frustrated at police failure to identify those responsible for petty crime. Their anger will resonate with many victims of such crime who feel they receive little action and scant sympathy. However, the two men went too far. If sanctioned by the courts, their action would have been a dangerous precedent. It violated fundamental principles of British life, namely that criminal punishment is the preserve of the courts, which presume that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

The strongest argument against vigilantes is the danger that the wrong people will be targeted or that they will be punished with a violence quite disproportionate to the alleged crime. After all, even judges and the police acknowledge that they occasionally persecute the innocent. Only last Friday, a judge blamed the police and the press for the wrongful conviction of Michelle and Lisa Taylor, who had been convicted of murdering Alison Shaughnessy. The aftermath of the Birmingham and Guildford pub bombings testifies to how emotion can pervert the course of justice even when professionals are involved.

If the official system of justice is capable of such mistakes, how much more prone to error are angry villagers searching out those they think have committed offences?

Almost every month there is a case somewhere in Britain of vigilantes meting out their crude justice, often with tragic consequences. The perils of the lynch mob are well-known in the United States, but there have been dangerous incidents in Britain. Last month, a family - including two children, one of them a baby girl - was rescued by police in Mid Glamorgan after hundreds of people besieged their home. The family was stoned and the baby was covered in broken glass as the crowd sought a teenager who was alleged to have committed sexual assaults.

In the Norfolk case most villagers agree that Judge Binns was right to punish the two men. However, even their victim has said that the five-year sentence was too severe. The judge could have made an example of the previously law-abiding men and deterred them from re-offending with a more lenient sentence. On appeal, it should be greatly shortened, to reflect the fact that the crime was out of character and followed provocation.

More generally, people need to be reassured that petty crime is not lowest of police priorities. The recent police swoop during Operation Bumblebee on hundreds of alleged London burglars was a gesture to the forgotten victims. However, neighbourhoods that feel threatened by crime can do more for themselves. As ordinary citizens they can keep watch on their areas, mount patrols and inform the police of problems. The answer to crime in places like Dickleburgh lies more with Miss Marple than with Arnold Schwarzenegger.