Riot Sentencing

August 17, 2011 5:05 PM

Let me be clear. Anyone who is convicted of a serious offence in relation to the recent riots should serve long prison sentences, and I would expect judges to take the public disturbances as an aggravating factor. Anyone convicted of violent disorder should expect to go to prison.

However, disproportionate sentences for lesser crimes devalue our response to more serious criminal activity. That is why I have questioned the logic of sentencing those convicted of petty offences to prison, particularly when it is their first offence. For example, Ursula Nevin, a mother of two, who did not take part in the riots herself, was given a five-month prison sentence after she accepted a pair of shorts that her flatmate had looted.

In such cases, I believe it would be far better to make people acknowledge the impact their actions have had on victims and to force them to repay their debt to society in the form of stiff community sentences. What I fear is, as leading criminal barrister John Cooper QC has said, that many of these prison sentences will be overturned by the Court of Appeal. Justice will not prevail if we simply rush to act in a way that creates headlines today, but leads to sentences being overturned on appeal tomorrow.

Sentencing must be proportionate and consistent. I have already stated those guilty of serious offences during the rioting should serve long terms, but those guilty of petty offences, particularly first time offenders or where guilt was admitted at an early stage should be treated similarly to those who committed the same type of offence a day before the riots. The government should not lose sight of its own evidence which demonstrates that short prison sentences do very little to cut re-offending. Restorative justice approaches for petty offences (not serious ones) which require the culprit to make good the damage they have caused and apologise to their victim are proven to be more satisfying for victims and to cut reoffending rates. In contrast, short term prison sentences have higher re-offending rates than community sentences.

I hope that this clarifies the points that I have been trying to put across in the media.

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