It seems that, after initial worries about light sentences for those involved in the recent riots, the goalposts have been shifted. It appears that the government is saying that prison does work after all, well in certain circumstances that is and very populist.
The Telegraph reports that a memo was sent by London’s most senior justice clerks late last week told magistrates to effectively dispense with the sentencing rule book to make an example of the rioters and looters. They should, it said, take into account the ‘exceptional’ circumstances.
“The courts need to recognise the breakdown of law and order that took place,” said James Clappison, a Conservative member of the Commons Home Affairs Committee, calling for magistrates elsewhere to be given the same instructions. “We need to see tougher sentencing to deter future offending. The sad fact is that many people must be sent to jail.”
65% of those charged in the rioting gave been remanded in custody compared with only 10% of those involved in serious offences for the whole of last year.
The Independent reports that the normal anonymity rules with regard to under-age offenders will no longer apply where the courts believe this to be in the public interest – ie where we need to show that the state is taking its revenge on the perpetrators.
The Guardian also reports on the sentencing issue. It says that a senior clerk of HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) passed out instructions to court clerks that normal sentencing guidelines should be disregarded. Although magistrates are independent consideration should be given to considering the riots to be an ‘aggravating’ factor that would mean a harsher than normal sentence was appropriate. And that could mean passing the case up to the Crown Courts for sentences greater than 6 months.
But what happens once this episode has faded from our immediate collective consciousness? Will we go back to not caring about the violence and feral youths as long as they remain in their ‘designated’ areas? The PM says not, he is coming out with all sorts of plans. But when the long term costing is looked at as well as the ongoing political will and public support needed will these grand plans be quietly dropped in favour of just bottling it up like we always have done?
After all, if there’s another riot for whatever reason, we’ve already set the precedent that we can amend the sentencing laws in retrospect to deal with them.
Then of course there is our court appeals system. I wonder how many Human Rights lawyers are waiting to step in and help anyone who thinks they have been sentenced out of immediate public anger and for vengeance and not for justice.
We should sentence the culprits using the law as it stands today, not try to rewrite it retrospectively. Then parliament should look back calmly and decide which laws we need to change and how best to do it.