British Judges Hand Out Stiff Sentences For Rioters

In the aftermath of the riots that spread through England, judges are handing out stiff sentences to those who took part. In one case, a man was given a four-year sentence just for drunkenly posting an invitation to riot on a Facebook page. There's no evidence anyone, other than the police, acted on his post.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host: Here's one of the lessons emerging from last week's riots in Britain - think twice before you write something dumb on Facebook. Two men used Facebook to try to incite disorder in their towns. It didn't work. There was no violence, yet both were sentenced to four years in prison.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports from London.

PHILIP REEVES: The crime's over. Now it's all about the punishment. For the last week, courts have been at full stretch dealing with some of the several thousand arrested for taking part in four days of arson, looting, and mayhem in London and other English cities. Nearly 1,300 people have appeared in court on riot related charges. Two thirds have been detained behind bars.

Some sentences have been tough - in some cases, too tough, says Paul Mendelle of England's Criminal Bar Association.

PAUL MENDELLE: The goal must always be to pass a sentence that fits the crime. And the concern of some of us is that, because these cases are being rushed through en masse, and courts are sitting sometimes 24 hours a day, three days at a time, is that people are not being justly sentenced. They're being unjustly sentenced. They're being given sentences that are too heavy for the crime.

REEVES: Rebecca Tanner is a lawyer for one of two young men jailed for using Facebook to encourage riots in their hometowns. She says her clients pleaded guilty and wasn't expecting to be sentenced to four years in prison by a court in the northern city of Chester.

REBECCA TANNER: Obviously, as a 22-year-old in his situation, knowing that ultimately whilst he'd been extremely foolish, I think he was shocked given that his view would be he hadn't actually physically caused any hurt or physical harm.

REEVES: Prosecutors are defending these sentences, saying that using the Internet to call for riots could have led to widespread and serious violence. It also wasted a lot of police resources, as the police were the only ones who turned up.

There are some other examples of disproportionately harsh sentences, says Vicki Helyar-Cardwell of the Criminal Justice Alliance.

VICKI HELYAR-CARDWELL: We saw, I think, this week, a mother of two jailed for five months for receiving a stolen pair of shorts.

REEVES: In another case, a 23-year-old man who stole a five dollar box of water was jailed for six months.

Legal and human rights groups are concerned that some judges may be being swayed by public anger in Britain about the riots, and also by the government's desire to crack down. They predict a wave of appeals.

The courts are supposed to use guidelines, says Helyar-Cardwell. But she adds...

HELYAR-CARDWELL: We are concerned that the sentencing guidelines, which essentially exist to provide proportionality and consistency in sentencing across the country, are sort of being jettisoned at the moment. And we, you know, we have serious concerns about that.

REEVES: Helyar-Cardwell doubts whether putting people in overcrowded prisons is effective and says a better deterrent is so-called restorative justice, where offenders are forced to make amends to their victims.

However, Prime Minister David Cameron robustly defended the tough sentences being handed out to rioters.

Prime Minister DAVID CAMERON: What happened on our streets was absolutely appalling behavior. And to send a very clear message it's wrong, it won't be tolerated, is what our criminal justice system should be doing.

REEVES: Cameron was asked about the Facebook cases.

CAMERON: You weren't sitting in the court. I wasn't sitting in the court. We didn't hear the evidence. They decided in that court to send a tough sentence, a tough message, and I think it's very good the courts feel able to do that.

REEVES: This issue is awkward for Cameron though - he heads a coalition government. Some of his Liberal Democrat partners are making clear they do not share his appetite for harshly punishing those who caused havoc in their country.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.

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