After the shock of the riots came the all too predictable knee-jerk reactions by politicians and public alike.
From the Prime Minister’s pronouncements on tough sentences down to e-petitions for convicted rioters to be thrown out penniless on the street we were fed a diet of vengeance.
All we heard was the snapping of knees as they jerked in reaction to events. Then came the wails of ‘the sentences are too lenient’ just as we predicted at the start.
But thank the Lord for the benefits of what is left of the UK constitution.
Before David Cameron stalked out of Number Ten to the podium he should have remembered that he does not control the day to day sentencing of convicted criminals, that’s what the courts do.
We must remember that there are three facets to the state: the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary with all three being independent to ensure that power is never misused (or almost never).
The legislature consists of all the members of parliament and the Lords. They propose and make laws as well as amending old laws. And all these are pushed between the houses of commons and lords as well as through committees whilst being continually amended in the hope that this law making sausage machine will churn out something fairly palatable at the end that Her Majesty can sign into law. (Yes, the Monarch still ultimately signs laws into force.)
It is then up to the executive to ensure the country is run within those laws. The executive is the government; that is ministers of the crown (such as the PM and Chancellor) and forces such as the police and armed forces allocated to it. Do not confuse ‘government’ (executive) with ‘parliament’ (legislators). Governments have to operate within the law the legislators hand down, they cannot do their own thing such as handing out stiffer sentences for crimes than the law allows.
So why did Cameron make all those promises knowing they were not his to keep?
Lastly there is the judiciary. These are the magistrates and judges who listen to the arguments and decide if a law has been broken, to what extent it has been broken and what the sentence should be. But the sentences they can hand out have been pre-determined by the legislature; once again judges cannot just do their own thing. The judges also have guidelines that ensure that sentences across the board are commensurate with each other. So that a case of vandalism in one part of the country by one person in a particular set of circumstances at one time is mirrored by another sentence in a separate incident at another time elsewhere. Otherwise there would be wildly varying sentences for the same offence, so bringing the law into disrepute (and also preventing knee jerk over-sentencing).
If we wish the law to be heavier handed with the rioters, then we need parliament (legislature) to make the laws and sentences that the judges can then impose. But that would apply to future riots only, laws should not be made with retrospective powers.
But bear in mind that the law would then have to be as proportionally heavier handed in all other areas as well so as to keep the whole sentencing framework nicely in proportion.