Court of Appeal upholds a number of harsh sentences in relation to the London Riots
Looking back at the events of this year so far, it would be fair to suggest that 2011 has been a year a civil dissention. Numerous protests have taken place against the Police force following a number of deaths in custody as well as fierce demonstrations against the Government in response to cuts to the Education System, NHS and the Public sector jobs market.
However, the nation-wide riots of August were almost certainly the most shock- ing particularly for the Government.
Lengthy prison sentences were quickly imposed on participants and despite widespread criticism from Community workers and the general public, the court of appeal have recently upheld a number of sentences.
Among those cases were Ursula Nevin and Nicholas Robinson who both re- ceived six month prison sentences despite their minimal participation in the riots. Ms Nevin, a mother of two did not take part in the riots but was jailed for accept- ing a looted pair of shorts given to her while 23 year old student Nicholas Rob- inson stole a case of water worth £3.50 from Lidl after it had been smashed into by rioters.
These disproportionate penalties have been approved by Prime Minister David Cameron who expressed his respect for the “tough message” the courts were sending and the head of the judiciary of England and Wales, Lord Judge. He believes that sentences should reflect the ““ghastliness” of the riots as a whole.
“Those who deliberately participate in disturbances of this magnitude causing injury, damage and fear to even the most stout-hearted of citizens, and who individually commit further crimes during the course of the riots, are committing aggravated crimes.”
“The imposition of severe sentences, intended to provide both punishment and deterrents, must follow – it is very simple.”
This opinion has proven particularly popular among politicians and there have been reports that the Government were ultimately behind its implementation. Novello Noades chair of the Camberwell Green magistrates court claimed that she had been issued a government “directive” to ensure that anyone in- volved in the rioting was given a custodial sentence.
This move has received staunch criticism from many involved in the criminal justice system including Geoff Dobson of the Prison Reform Trust who argues that it is illogical in the midst of an economic crisis.
“Prison numbers are at a record high level and most prisons are experiencing problems associated with overcrowding. It costs £45,000 per year on average to lock someone up … it would be a mis- take to see prison as the default response for all who appear before the courts.”
Vicki Helyar-Cardwell of the Criminal Justice Alliance believes that these sentences will only exacerbate the situation in the long term.
A recently published official report commissioned by the Home Office and Ministry of Justice found that the majority of those charged over the august riots were younger, poor and of below average educational achievements. Two-thirds of the young people in court were classed as having some form of special educa- tional need and a third had been excluded from school during 2009-10 in comparison to the 6% of year 11 pupils expelled during that school year.
The report also found that 75% of those charged been previously convicted or cautioned and this statistic adds weight to Ms Healy-Cardwell’s aforementioned statement; heavy sentences are not the answer.
Through harsh criticism and severe punishment, the Government intend to forcefully ensure that the riots which caused £200million worth of damage will not happen again. However little is being done about the rising levels of poverty or the wealth divide which has reached a forty year high. The Education system which is clearly failing young people has seen little change aside from serious funding cuts.
Rather than trying to understand and remedy the causes of the riots, Prime Minister David Cameron branded it “mindless criminality” and the actions of the government and judicial system have mirrored his view. The “tough message” that the courts have sent to those guilty of committing meagre offences pales in comparison to the lenient handling of Members of Parliament who were exposed during the expenses scandal of 2009.
Of the many MP’s who had effectively stolen hundreds of thousands from the public purse only a handful were jailed. This hypocrisy is a reflection of the arrogance and injustice present within the upper echelons of British society and should this continue, it will only be a matter of time before the Young and deprived