British courts under fire for tough justice after riots

17th August 2011, Comments 0 comments

Campaigners criticised Britain's courts Wednesday for imposing overly harsh sentences for last week's unrest after two men were jailed for four years for using Facebook to incite riots that never took place.

The sentences given to Jordan Blackshaw, 20, from Cheshire, and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22, from Warrington, both in northwest England, are the longest yet imposed following four frenzied nights of violence in which five people died.

Prosecutors said the men's online calls to riot caused "significant panic and revulsion" even though no one answered their plea, while Prime Minister David Cameron has been clear that offenders must be punished with jail terms.

However, justice campaigners and lawyers warned that as the courts continue to process almost 1,200 suspected offenders following the riots, some of the sentences given were out of proportion and risked undermining the entire system.

"The rush to send a message out is leading to some very bad sentences, which will be overturned on appeal," said Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns for the Howard League for Penal Reform.

He said it was "understandable" that the riots be treated as an "aggravating factor", but added: "In the Facebook case we're talking about four years' jail which would normally be associated with serious and violent offences."

The sentences compare with typical punishments of four years for a mugging with a weapon.

Blackshaw and Sutcliffe-Keenan, who do not know each other, both pleaded guilty to intentionally encouraging another person to assist the commission of an indictable offence, and were sentenced at Chester Crown Court on Monday.

Tough sentences were given to three other looters at Manchester Crown Court on Monday, and Judge Andrew Gilbart said "outbursts" of criminal behaviour like the looting and rioting "must be met with sentences longer" than if they were committed in isolation.

Blackshaw had set up a Facebook page entitled "Smash Down Northwich Town", which encouraged people to gather "behind maccies" -- believed to be the McDonald's restaurant in Northwich town centre -- last Tuesday.

Only the police turned up, however, and he was promptly arrested.

On that night, riots which had rocked London for three nights spread north and looters attacked shops in Manchester city centre, near Northwich.

Sutcliffe-Keenan's creation, "Let's Have a Riot in Latchford", called for people to riot the following day. The court heard he had been drinking, and when he awoke with a hangover the next morning, he removed the page and apologised.

However, prosecutor Martin McRobb said the pages created "significant panic and revulsion" amongst local people.

Although the two young men have received the longest sentences from the unrest so far, previous cases have indicated the courts are taking into consideration Cameron's call for those responsible to be jailed.

Last week, a 23-year-old student with no previous convictions was jailed for six months for stealing a case of bottled water in Brixton, south London. The family of Nicholas Robinson gasped with disbelief when he was sentenced.

Criminal defence barrister Paul Mendelle said some people must be imprisoned over the riots, but there were clear guidelines which must be followed.

"It appears the courts are being urged to ignore those guidelines and somehow to throw the rule book out of the window, and ramp up sentences. I find that unsettling and potentially unjust," he told BBC radio.

"It's often said that justice delayed is justice denied, but justice rushed can be justice denied as well."

A spokeswoman for the Judicial Office said however that there was "no truth" in media reports that judges had been issued a directive to increase sentences.

Local government minister Eric Pickles defended the decision to jail the two men over the Facebook riots, saying: "We cannot have people being frightened in their beds, frightened in their own homes, for their public safety.

"That's why these kind of exemplary sentences are necessary and I think the public would be rightly alarmed if incitement to riot got off with just a slap on the wrist."

© 2011 AFP

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