A great deal of attention is apparently being paid to the views and feelings of the British public in the court sentences being meted out to those involved in this months riots. During Tuesday evenings Newsnight on BBC2, two MPs spoke to justify taking public opinion into account and use the toughest sentences possible with the rioters. Gavin Barwell claimed that some 1300 constituents who had responded by email to his request for feedback were ‘virtually unanimous’ that tough sentences be applied. Margot James expressed the sense of shame that she and others felt for the actions carried out in cities last week and for the need to deal strongly with the perpetrators. This morning Eric Pickles spoke on the Today programme, pointing out that the fear created in the minds of ordinary people by the riots needed to be met with exemplary sentences. During the day, David Cameron has expressed his support for strong sentences.
According to reports in the Guardian, Andrew Gilbert QC the Crown Court Judge in some of the first cases seen beyond the Magistrates Courts explained why he was disregarding sentencing guidelines when he said “the offences of the night of 9 August … takes them completely outside the usual context of criminality”. Messages coming from some of the Magistrates Courts suggest they have been ‘encouraged’ by their advisers to send a disproportionate number of cases to the higher courts which have a greater sentencing scope. These stories along with the general reporting that the offences are being treated harshly is sufficient for some of us to feel anxious and explains the speculation that there will be a significant number of appeals made in due course. If these appeals are successful will there be a financial penalty for society to compensate those imprisoned ‘unsafely’? If so how will the public feel then?
Shouldn’t the judgement be based purely on the nature of the crime itself and the history of the person concerned? If we steal a bottle of water, a packet of chewing gum or an ice cream cone for the first time, then that is a crime which needs to be judged on those factors. Equally if we have caused a riot that leads to looting and torching buildings then we should be treated in a way that the law allows for such crimes. This distinction was helpfully identified by Tom Brake, the Lib Dem spokesman on Home Affairs on Newsnight. Perhaps there should be a specific tariff for being part of a riot (but not the cause) which would add an agreed penalty onto the usual sentence for minor theft? This may allow the magistrates to deal with such cases and avoid the deluge of cases being sent to higher courts, with the substantially increased cost for such processes and added stress to those who are guilty of relatively minor offences.
Some of the ‘public’ might actually feel that in the context of an apparent wholesale breakdown of law and order, that conventional norms had changed (albeit temporarily) and poor behaviour is more understandable. If friends and neighbours have taken to the Streets then perhaps it is harder to stay away, if others have smashed a window and ransacked a shop, perhaps picking up some of the items left behind is no worse (nor better) than slipping an item into our pocket when out shopping for things we need. As the Guardian reports these are not simple matters to understand (http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/aug/16/london-riots-young-people-voice-anger?CMP=twt_gu). Earlier the Guardian reported from the court case mentioned above, that Judge Elgan Edwards QC had said “This happened at a time when collective insanity gripped the nation”. If individual insanity is seen as mitigation for certain crimes, should this collective insanity not be considered in mitigation for collective crimes?
If the idea of collective mitigation seems a step too far, surely our lawmakers, the same people who are recommending that the judgement of the public is heard on the matter of riots, can understand that there is an inconsistency in their own responses. It is only a few months ago that colleagues of Mr Barwell and Ms James were being castigated by the same public who they now seem desperate to listen to. Indeed Mr Pickles was one with a second home less than 30 miles away from his constituency who was personally chastised by some of the public during one edition of Question Time. He did not appear to be in listening mode then! Clearly none of the MPs caused a riot, but many of them did use as a defence, that their own expenses submission had simply followed what others had done, even though many were clearly contrary to the letter of the processes concerned. If these lawmakers are serious about listening to the opinions of the public, why do they so consistently rebut these opinions when it comes to introducing the death penalty?
At what stage does the public need to be led rather than followed, particularly if the same public are a baying mob demanding that a suspected paedophile is removed from their neighbourhood, a rioting crowd in a city centre and a faceless unidentified list of email responses wanting understandable justice for those who have torched their community. And what about the 77,000 constituents of Gavin Barwell who have not yet sent him an email, are their views equally relevant?